The latest aircraft from Airbus, the strange-looking and massive Beluga XL, has taken its first flight. The airplane represents the culmination of years of development and will replace the older aircraft of the same name.
The airplane is based on the Airbus A330-200 platform, and many of the components from that plane can be readily identified by the casual observer. For example, the A330’s distinctive wings, which feature a unique winglet that protrudes above and below the level of the wings in the same proportions, are identical to those used on the Beluga.
But the similarities stop there. The Beluga’s fuselage is so heavily modified as to be almost unrecognizable as an A330 variant. While the aircraft shares most of its avionics with the A330, its cockpit area is radically different, appearing more like the wheelhouse in an airship than anything one might be accustomed to seeing on a modern jet.
The older version of the Beluga was based on the A300, which was the first twin-engine widebody to fly commercially. The A300 has been out of production for decades and its parts are becoming ever more difficult to find, driving service costs through the roof. For these reasons, Airbus needed a replacement.
The new Beluga is actually able to haul even more weight and larger cargo than its predecessor. This is good news for the company that now produces the largest commercial aircraft in the world, the Airbus A380. Because Airbus has assembly plants located across Europe and sources aircraft parts, some of which are massive in scale, from across the globe, they need a plane that can handle carrying oversize parts to and from various production facilities. With its more than 500,000-pound maximum takeoff weight, this is a job that the new Beluga XL is more than capable of carrying out.
Airbus archrival Boeing has an oversized cargo plane of its own. Called the Dreamlifter, the aircraft provides a similar role to that of the Beluga XL, with Boeing also having suppliers for its commercial aircraft manufacturing facilities located throughout the world. Much to Airbus’ chagrin, however, the Dreamlifter, which is based on the 747-800, can lift over twice as much as its European counterpart, giving it a huge advantage in hauling the most challenging cargo from the ends of the Earth.