Twenty years to the day since its maiden flight, the Beluga cargo aircraft continues to play an invaluable role in keeping the Airbus’ production and assembly network working at full output. As the company ramps up production to meet a record order backlog, the Beluga’s airlifter fleet’s importance – as well as its overall pace of operations – will grow accordingly.
Officially designated as the A300-600ST Super Transporter, the Beluga is a modified version of Airbus’ A300-600 passenger airliner, purpose-made to ferry crucial aircraft components among its network of European production facilities. The no. 1 Beluga entered service during 1995, and subsequently was joined by four more to form the current fleet of five – which are operated by the Airbus Transport International (ATI) subsidiary.
Nicknamed for its resemblance with the distinctive-looking arctic white whale, the Beluga offers a unique way to transport oversized air cargo, leveraging one of the most voluminous cargo holds of any civil or military aircraft flying today. Today it services a network of 11 stations located in France, Germany, Spain, the UK and Turkey, carrying such complete components such as fuselage sections, wings and tails for Airbus A320 Family and A330 jetliners, along with elements for A380 and A350 XWB.
Approaching the 20-year milestone of reliable service, the Beluga fleet is far from slowing down. In fact, as a major component of Airbus’ FLY 10,000 programme to increase overall transportation capacity, each of the five aircraft are significantly expanding their annual flight hour totals – to take the total capacity from 5,000 in 2011 to more than 10,000 per year by 2017. FLY 10,000 is achieving this by changing ways of working, expanding the hours during which flights can be performed, and updating how operations are carried out.
Airbus also is increasing capacity across its transport network with new and expanded ground handling hangars dedicated to servicing the Belugas during their stopovers. The new facilities – the first of which opened at Airbus’ Hamburg production site earlier in 2014 – will minimise the impact of weather conditions on loading and unloading, thereby helping increase the Beluga airlifters’ flight hour totals in support of production rate increases for Airbus’ current jetliner product lines, as well as the ramp-up of A350 XWB family production.
By enhancing the ground handling facilities, Beluga loading/unloading time will be reduced from the current two hours – already a remarkably short turnaround – to just 90 minutes in the years to come. In addition, overall aircraft availability will be further increased through improved maintenance operations, a 24/7 control centre and other steps.