Orders for new Airbus aircraft continue to soar as worldwide passenger transport continues to increase unabated. The need to bring the different aircraft parts on site quickly which are produced not only in France, but in many other European countries, means that a fast and efficient air transport system must be in place.
Airbus component transport stretches back to 1970
In the early 1970’s Airbus components which were manufactured across Europe were mainly transported to Toulouse, France by road for final assembly. It was quickly noted that this system would not help Airbus to produce new aircraft types quick enough if another faster mode of transport were not found.
It was then in 1972 that the Super Guppies were introduced. This was a fleet of four elderly Boeing Stratocruisers which were converted to carry parts and even were outfitted with turbine engines. They became much too expensive and unreliable to operate and Airbus started again to look for a suitable replacement, especially an aircraft which could carry the large wing sections of the new A340 series of aircraft. There was even thoughts about using Antonov AN-124 freighters as well as Lockheed Galaxy C-5A transporters. These plans were shelved however due to the high operating costs.
It was in 1991 that two Airbus partners. Aerospatiale and DAS formed a 50/50 joint venture company and named it Super Airbus Transport International (SATIC). Under the stewardship of aircraft designer Udo Draeger the company concentrated on using the Airbus A300-600 fuselage as the base for today’s Beluga transporter. Airbus invested up to US$1 billion in this project for aircraft, electronics and loading / unloading systems. Since then Airbus has been using A300-600ST Beluga as their transporter workhorse to move parts all around Europe. A total of five aircraft were produced and named as Beluga’s due to their distinct resemblance to a whale.
The venerable Beluga gets a new larger sister ship
It was in 2014 that Airbus decided that they’d need a larger aircraft to cope specifically with the transport of the new A350 wing sections. The decision was made to use Airbus A330-200 freighter aircraft as the base and out of that the new Beluga XL was born. The XL has a wider cabin and can carry 12% more payload. Once the five new XL’s are all in service, it is planned to phase out the present Beluga fleet by 2025.
On July 19th, at exactly 14:41 hours, the first Beluga XL completed its maiden test flight which took four hours and 11 minutes and landed back at Toulouse-Blagnac Airport. The cockpit crew headed by Captain Christophe Cail were enthusiastic about the aircraft’s performance. There now follows a six-month test flight operation of some 600 hours before Type Certification and entry into service in late 2019. The five aircraft will be introduced into service successively between 2019 and 2023.
Weak spot are freighters
Airbus Beluga’s operate from 11 different airports across Europe for the transport of wings and other large components.
The Toulouse-based aircraft manufacturer has come a long way since 1970 and is next to Boeing the largest civil aircraft producer worldwide. Only recently Bombardier’s C-series variants were added to its portfolio, flying now as Airbus A220.
In comparison to Boeing, Airbus has not been very successful with sales of their freighter versions. The A330-200F, which is a super freighter, has not been popular with air cargo operators and has been overtaken by Boeing with the larger B777F which offers considerably more payload.
Will Airbus consider looking again at a larger freighter in the future? Probably not as it seems that Boeing is now in full control in this sector.
John Mc Donagh