By Charlotte Seet
Upsizing Cargo With The Airbus Beluga
Having flown its maiden flight in 1994, the Airbus A300-600ST Super Transporter — also known as the adorable and oversized Airbus BelugaST — became the world’s most unique cargo carrier as it featured one of the biggest cargo holds of any civil or military aircraft flying today in quite an unorthodox shape.
Such massive volume allows for Airbus to keep up an efficient line of production and assembly network operations as the BelugaST ferries aircraft components between the manufacturing giant’s facilities in Toulouse, France, and Hamburg, Germany. And in 2020, Airbus began introducing a new fleet of six new-generation BelugaXL versions that will eventually replace the older generation completely, this time basing designs on the A330s instead of the older A300s.
A complete eventual replacement does mean the end-of-life for the original five BelugaSTs. Despite their ripe ages, Airbus plans to tap further into the air cargo market by introducing a brand-new service called the Airbus Beluga Transport, which will offer freight companies and other commercially-contracted customers in various sectors a solution for their outsized cargo transport needs.
In fact, the new service has already completed its first mission at the end of 2021, a delivery from Airbus Helicopters’ manufacturing site in Marignane, France, to Kobe, Japan for an undisclosed customer. Operating on this mission was Beluga #3, which completed the mission through refuels at Warsaw, Poland; Novosibirsk, Russia and Seoul.
“The Beluga’s wider cross-section will open up new markets and new logistical possibilities for customers,” said Phillippe Sabo, Airbus Head of ATI and Air Oversize Transport. “In the case of loading helicopters, not having to dismantle them first really is a plus. Similarly, the largest commercial aircraft engines can be accommodated in a fully-dressed configuration.”
Currently, the Toulouse-based manufacturer has only enabled Beluga #2 and Beluga #3 for this service, considering that not all of the six new BelugaXLs have been commissioned yet. Once the replacement of the fleet is complete, however, Airbus plans to hand over the older BelugaST fleet to a newly created subsidiary airline with its own Air Operator Certificate and staff.
“Whereas the ATI structure is inherently focused around the European network of Airbus’ plants, the new airline which we will create will be flexible and agile to address the needs of external markets,” Sabo said. “Moreover, it will have a worldwide scope and we will be organized for that around the globe.”
But even the old would need a little touch-up because to maximize the BelugaST’s reactivity and short turnaround capability required by its targeted international customer base, new loading techniques and equipment are being developed for the operation. A couple of examples include an automated on-board cargo loader for airports that may not have the suitable loading and unloading platforms and an upgraded Flight Management System with ADS-B for enhanced intercontinental navigational capabilities.
For aviation geeks around the world, this new venture by Airbus is certainly exciting news as the possibility of seeing the BelugaST or even the BelugaXL in action will eventually be increased.