This was announced by the airframer’s chief engineer, Pascal Vialleton, during a video conference last Friday. To do so, the European plane manufacturer is seeking ETOPS certification for two of its three still to be built ‘XL whales’. Once obtained, this would also open up new avenues for ordinary cargo transports.
Vialleton speaks of 2022, when the first of the 2 future Beluga XLs will take off to cross the North Atlantic, provided the twin-engine freighter has obtained ETOPS certification (Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards) from the FAA by then. This is paramount, allowing the aircraft to operate routes which may be 180 minutes’ flying time from the nearest airport suitable for an emergency landing.
Suitable for multiple tasks
Airbus’ main purpose in utilizing the ETOPS-certified Beluga XLs, is to transport satellites from Europe to the United States, where they will be launched into orbit from different sites. In addition, the aircraft will also support the manufacturer’s internal supply chain, carrying fuselage sections and components to the company’s A320 and A220 final assembly lines in Mobile, Alabama. They could also serve as charter operations, carrying large, heavy, and oversized cargo on behalf of customers. Based on the A330 variant with a distinctive lowered cockpit, the Beluga XL allows nose loading of large and heavy items. Due to its fuselage diameter of 8.8m, the XL offers 30% more capacity compared to its ST sibling.
However, unlike freighters such as the Antonov An-124, the XL is unable to load or unload items at ground level, making a mobile platform stored in the aircraft a precondition for such tasks.
Large capacity but limited range
Vialleton pointed out that, besides distributing aircraft components between the plane maker’s production sites in France, Germany, Spain, and the UK, the Beluga fleet has performed other services such as flying entire helicopters or large satellites to clients located outside the EU.
One pain point is the XL’s limited range when fully loaded, which Airbus quotes as 4,000 km. For transatlantic flights, this would mean that the large freighter would have to make a stopover in Iceland to refuel, or cross the ocean flying nonstop from Shannon, Ireland, to St. John’s in Newfoundland.
Currently, 3 Beluga XLs are operational, with 3 more to come. By the end of 2023, the XL fleet will have grown to 6, replacing the older 5 Beluga STs utilized by Airbus until now.
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