Airbus trials outsized military cargo loading system on Beluga

Airbus Defence and Space announced on September 21 that it has developed a loading system to lift outsized military cargo into the Beluga A300-600ST freight aircraft, revealing that the capability was successfully tested in a verification exercise with the Bundeswehr (German Armed Forces) – the system’s first customer – in Manching, Germany.

During the verification exercise, Airbus’ new, self-funded cargo loading system was used to successfully load a Luftwaffe (German Air Force)-operated Sikorsky CH-53G Sea Stallion heavy-lift tactical transport helicopter into the Beluga A300-600ST. Following the event, the new system and its associated jig was unveiled to customer representatives from international armed forces. The system requires no crane for use, has a total lifting capacity of 35 tonnes and permits the loading of a CH-53G in a reduced state of dismantling within 1.5 hours, of which the actual loading process can be finished within an hour.

A Luftwaffe-operated CH-53G Sea Stallion (serial 84+26) is loaded into a Beluga A300-600ST using Airbus' new, self-funded outsized military cargo loading system during a verification exercise at Manching, Germany.
A Luftwaffe-operated CH-53G Sea Stallion (serial 84+26) is loaded into a Beluga A300-600ST using Airbus' new, self-funded outsized military cargo loading system during a verification exercise at Manching, Germany. Airbus

Airbus states that the new cargo loading system and jig was developed and manufactured from scratch within 1.5 years, following an “initial exchange of ideas with the German customer to its verification.” The Bundeswehr is expected to confirm the verification of the new system within the coming weeks.

Commenting on the recent verification exercise and the Beluga A300-600ST’s ability to lift outsized military cargo, Michael Schoellhorn – Airbus Defence and Space CEO – said: “The demand for outsized air cargo capability is on the rise. Capacity is scarce and, in light of current geopolitical developments, many customers are looking for new, fast and efficient solutions. This is exactly what we offer with our BelugaST fleet.”

In recent years, such outsized military cargo transport requirements have typically been covered by civil-operated Antonov An-124s and even the An-225 ‘Mriya (Dream)’, which was destroyed by Russian military forces during the siege of Hostomel Airport, near Kyiv in Ukraine, in the opening weeks of conflict between the two nations. As the war in Ukraine continues, so too does the reduced global availability of the An-124s to address such user requirements.

Airbus Beluga A300-600ST (registration F-WBXL) conducts a flypast during the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) at RAF Fairford, Gloucestershire, on July 16, 2022. Airbus operates five Beluga A300-600STs in total.
Airbus Beluga A300-600ST (registration F-WBXL) conducts a flypast during the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) at RAF Fairford, Gloucestershire, on July 16, 2022. Airbus operates five Beluga A300-600STs in total. Khalem Chapman

While this capability has been in-development for the last year-and-a-half (preceding the start of hostilities between Russia and Ukraine), the Beluga has been unable to easily carry out such missions as the aircraft’s cargo deck is at a height of 18ft (5.5m), which requires airports and air bases to have their own crane system to load outsized military cargo into the Beluga. On the other hand, the An-124 is able to effectively ‘kneel’, allowing for outsized cargo to be loaded via a ramp, without the need of extensive ground support equipment.

“Our teams have been working on a remarkable solution to facilitate a speedy, efficient and autonomous handling to load heavy military cargo onto the aircraft. Speed, agility and autonomy are crucial elements for our customers when it comes to such operators,” Schoellhorn added.

Airbus operates a five-strong fleet of Beluga A300-600STs, which have been solely used to transport large aircraft sections between the company’s various production sites in support of the manufacturing of new airliners. Based on the larger A330-200 aircraft, the new BelugaXL variant will enable Airbus to offer global transport services with the type.