Airbus is improving upon its line of existing super transporter A300-600ST aircraft with an even more massive variation called the The Airbus Beluga XL. The Airbus Beluga XL is being developed as a transport plane that will be operated by Airbus in the movement of oversized cargo and aircraft components. Designed to supplant the previous version, Airbus’ Beluga, the XL version is a derivation of the A330 wide-body line of aircraft and will feature several newer innovations.
Keeping with the adage that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, elements of the prior version will remain, like the extension on the fuselage. However, the development of the XL will highlight some changes that are intended to improve upon the aircraft’s capabilities and performance, like the lowering of the cockpit, alterations to the structure of the cargo bay, as well as changes to the rear and tail sections, to name a few.
The original Beluga, appropriately nicknamed due to its similarity in appearance to the species of white whale that inhabit the Arctic, was initially introduced in 1995. Officially produced as a Super Transporter, the Beluga variation of the then existing wide-bodied A300-600 families of twin-engine jet airliners were modified into air cargo planes to move outsized freight and airline components.
With an operational history that extends beyond 20 years, the Beluga is capable of impressively transporting sections of Airbus aircraft in their entirety between production sites all across Europe. Throughout their lifespan, the original 5 Belugas have effectively moved complete fuselage sections, wings and tails for the Airbus A320 and A330 family of jet airliners as well as components for the A350XB series. The Beluga is still widely considered the most capacious of any comparable civil and military aircraft in production today.
Following the first three XL model airliners entering into service, the fleet of Belugas will operate as a mixed bag of sorts for approximately 5 years with the first of the originals being transitioned into retirement in 2021. The newer XL version will slowly succeed the five Beluga originally developed that are currently still in operational service. Their retirement will be a gradual process with the last becoming obsolete by 2025.
The Airbus Beluga XL will feature several of the original design elements one of which is the state of the art flight deck. The XL flight deck integrates six CRT displays used in the navigation of the aircraft and the monitoring of flight systems and is currently in global operation on Airbus series A300-600s and A310 airliners.
Additional flight deck modifications include the further integration of a heating module that delivers temperature control capability to the cargo hold to be used in the transport of sensitive material and cargo. Generally, sensitive cargo distinction is limited to material substances, electronics or pieces of valuable art, artifacts and antiquities. The Airbus Beluga XL Flight deck crew will consist of three persons, two pilots, and one crewman to act as a loadmaster.
Improvements upon the previous design include the capability to hold thirty percent more capacity than its predecessor. The XL will also be close to twenty feet longer and 3 feet wider and will have the capability to lift a payload that is six tons heavier. The forward section is based upon the specifications for the A330-200 aircraft in efforts to provide a more stabilized center of gravity whereas the aft section of the airliner resembles that of the A330-300 aircraft.
Additionally, the vertical stabilizer is larger by 50 percent and its overall ranged performance has been increased as well. Powered by twin Rolls-Royce Trent 700 turbofans possessing 71,000 lbf each the Beluga XL can travel the expanse of 2300 nmi at Mach 0.69 as opposed to the inceptive distance of 900 nmi at roughly the same speed. The XL has a respectable maximum take-off weight of half a million pounds and can carry a maximum payload of over 110,000 lbs. The previous version was capable of transporting a solitary A350XB wing whereas its successor can transport both.
In October of 2017, the first Airbus Beluga XL was reported to be two-thirds of the way through production and was expected to take off on its maiden flight this summer. Recently the XL completed the first of several obstacles to the aircraft achieving certification. It successfully passed the static ground vibration test. The test was conducted at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) where the XL underwent 8 days of extensive testing, both empty and filled to determine how the aircraft will behave in the air and the likelihood of it succumbing to a phenomenon known as flutter which can occur when objects are subjected to aerodynamic forces and has been the cause of plane crashes.
This is only the first of many rounds of testing the XL will need to transition through before attempting to raise funding in the progression toward certification. That said, Airbus is still highly anticipating entry into service to be sometime in 2019.