Airbus has started fflighttesting the latest variant of its distinctive Beluga airlifter. Mark Broadbent reports on the new aircraft’s features
Airbus’ ive Beluga transport aircraft with their large, horseshoe-shaped cargo holds, are a daily sight in European skies, transporting fuselage sections and wings and other major components between the various Airbus production facilities and inal assembly lines (FALs) across the continent.
The Beluga is a key part of Airbus’ industrial set-up supplying the various production lines and its importance since its operational debut more than two decades ago is relected by the numbers. Last year, Airbus Transport International (ATI), the wholly owned Airbus subsidiary that operates the type, amassed 8,600 lying hours. The Belugas typically carry out more than 60 flights a week between 11 diferent sites across Europe.
With this already intense operational pace set to intensify as Airbus hikes production to eat into its orders backlog of more than 6,000 commercial aircraft, it was inevitable the company would look at modernising the Beluga leet and developing a new variant of this most distinctive airlifter that provides such important links in its production chain.
Airbus launched the BelugaXL programme in 2014, and after several years of development work the first example of this next-generation airlifter, F-WBXL (msn 1824), carried out its maiden flight from Toulouse on July 19, 2018, with the aircraft successfully completing a fourhour 17-minute flight over southwest France.
Over the next few months, F-WBXL will undertake 600 hours of flight testing before the BelugaXL is awarded its type certiication by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), a milestone anticipated in the second quarter of 2019.
For the current-generation Beluga, oicially designated the A300-600ST (Super Transporter) and also now referred to as the BelugaST, Airbus used the A300-600R’s lower fuselage, wings, landing gear and General Electric CF6 engines, to which it added the bulbous upper-fuselage cargo hold, creating the characteristic whale-like appearance that gives the aircraft its name.
Airbus took another of its existing and proven widebody aircraft – in this case, the A330 – to create the BelugaXL, which is oicially designated the A330-743L. The lower forward and central fuselage sections and wings are from the A330-200, the aft fuselage section and tailplane from the A330-300 (for “overall centre of gravity optimisation”, according to Airbus) and the fuselage structure, including the reinforced loor, are from the A330-200 Freighter. The BelugaXL’s landing gears and engine pylons are also common with the A330.
Just as when it modiied the A300 to create the BelugaST, Airbus lowered the A330’s cockpit and nose sections to create the space for the ‘bubble’ on the upper fuselage, the cargo hold with its upwards-hinged door to allow for eicient loading and unloading of cargo using a roll-on/roll-of loading system.
The BelugaXL ofers increased capacity from the BelugaST. The cargo hold is 6.9m (22ft 6in) longer and 1.7m (5ft 5in) wider than the first-generation aircraft, giving 2,615m3 (92,347ft3) of available cargo volume, up from 1,450m3 (51,206ft3). The maximum take-of weight (MTOW) will be 227,000kg (500,449lb), up from 155,000kg (341,716lb).
The capacity and MTOW improvements mean the BelugaXL will have a 53,000kg (116,845lb) maximum payload, up from 47,000kg (103,616lb). The new aircraft will be able to transport two A350 XWB wings instead of the single one the BelugaST can carry. Collectively, the ive BelugaXLs will provide an additional 30% air transport capacity over the BelugaST leet.
As the accompanying photos show, the BelugaXL is similar in appearance overall to the BelugaST, but there are several diferences. The BelugaXL has larger 72,000lb-thrust (320kN) Rolls-Royce Trent 700 turbofans, compared to the BelugaST’s 57,866lb-thrust (257kN) General Electric CF6-80C2A8 engines. The BelugaXL also has several structural diferences from the firstgeneration aircraft to improve stability. On the BelugaST, the dorsal in connecting the vertical tailplane to the fuselage is triangular and manufactured as a single part. By contrast, the BelugaXL’s dorsal in is 50% larger and has a kink in the diagonal line.
The vertical tailplane was raised by 2m (6ft 6in) from the baseline A330. The horizontal tailplane box is 1m (3ft 3in) wider on each side and its pair of auxiliary vertical end-ins are 1m higher. A completely new feature on the BelugaXL are the ventral ins on the bottom of the aft fuselage to help provide stability.
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Deharde, in partnership with P3 Voith Aerospace, designed and built the typical fuselage for the cargo hold and Stelia Aerospace the nose fuselage and main cargo door. Aernnova produced the rear fuselage and dorsal in and Aciturri was responsible for the horizontal tailplane box extension and auxiliary ins. Telair International provided the cargo loading system equipment, Triumph Group supplied the actuation system for the cargo door and Crane a monitoring system for the door.
From launch to testing
Airbus launched the Beluga XL programme in November 2014. Concept and detailed design work in 2015 led into manufacturing of the first key components by suppliers, activity that accelerated during 2016.
The A330 airframe selected to become the first BelugaXL was F-WBXL (msn 1824). The process of integration work on this airframe at a conversion station in the Toulouse FAL started late in 2016 and continued throughout 2017. The standard A330 upperfuselage section was joined to the rear fuselage section, nose section and wings. The horizontal tailplane with its auxiliary ins was then joined to this efectively semi-built airframe, before the other fuselage sections and the bulbous upper-fuselage cargo hold and door were installed.
Integration work was completed on F-WBXL by the end of 2017. By this time, a six-month period of ground testing involving a total of 294 serial tests on the airframe was already underway. The first of these tests were checks on fuel and hydraulic systems undertaken in November and December last year while the aircraft was still at the conversion station in the FAL.
After F-WBXL moved in January 2018 from the conversion station to the static test station for tests on pneumatic systems, lying controls, the cargo door and the nose landing gear. The forward zone of the aircraft including the cockpit was pressurised (the cargo hold is unpressurised), and flight test instrumentation installed in the aircraft and its functionality checked. This work was carried out between January and early April 2018.
Once this was completed, a heavy ground test phase began that involved introducing loads to the structure to validate design models, weighing the aircraft, conducting the ground vibration test (GVT), checking the cargo loading system with a full payload and undertaking inal systems checks.
The aircraft was weighed at 0o (i.e.lat on the ground) to identify its longitudinal centre of gravity, before it was tilted by 10o to identify its centre of gravity at that angle. The GVT was carried out by French aerospace research centre ONERA and the German Aerospace Center and was conducted in two conigurations: with an empty fuselage, and loaded with a heavy, tuneable payload. More than 600 sensors, 7,000m (22,966ft) of cable and 300m (984ft) of optical ibres were installed on the fuselage, empennage, engines and wings to measure the vibrations in the aircraft generated by external shakers and seismic exciters.
On completion of the heavy test phase, the aircraft was painted before going to the flight test centre ready for its maiden fflight.
Key features of the 600-hour flight test programme required for the BelugaXL’s EASA type certiication in the coming months will be take-of and landing performance, loading operations, performance with a variety of loads, coniguration de-risk and loads monitoring.
According to Airbus, F-WBXL is the instrumented flight test aircraft with what the company calls a medium flight test installation (FTI). It will be used for the bulk of the development and certiication work, including aircraft handling, ice shapes testing and certiication and external noise trials.
Because the BelugaXL will ly mainly into Airbus’ facilities around Europe, the environmental testing for the new aircraft is, the company says, “consistent with the need”; the aircraft will not undertake any hot and cold-weather test campaigns or conduct any tests at high-altitude airports.
The FTI installation on F-WBXL is classed as medium because, as noted, the cargo hold is unpressurised, so the FTI equipment in this area needs to acclimatise to the low temperatures there. Together with the lack of external visibility from the aircraft due to the lack of windows, the amount of FTI hardware that can be installed is limited. The FTI installation is therefore modular and makes extensive use of remote data acquisition units and video. Nevertheless, the FTI will be capable of taking 917 onboard measurements, monitoring 90,000 parameters and recording 30GB of data per hour.
The second BelugaXL, msn 1853 (its Fregistration was yet to be confirmed at the time of writing) will also be involved in flight testing alongside F-WBXL. This second jet entered the Toulouse FAL conversion station for modification in January 2018 and is scheduled for its first flight in the first quarter of 2019.
When msn 1853 joins the testing effort early next year, it will mostly be used for the tests required to obtain the supplementary type certificate for the aircraft. Aircraft two will not have any FTI installed and will be used for operability testing and function and reliability (F&R) testing to validate BelugaXL operations at Airbus’ different sites and for training ATI’s flight crews. It is intended F-WBXL will join msn 1853 in this operability and F&R work after it has completed the certification testing.
Delivery and into service
Aircraft two will also be the aircraft used for acceptance trials by ATI and it will become the first BelugaXL to enter service following type certification. Service entry is scheduled for later in 2019. Aircraft three (registration and serial number to be confirmed), which is due to enter the conversion facility on the Toulouse FAL in the fourth quarter of this year, will be the second BelugaXL to enter service. Its arrival is scheduled for the first quarter of 2019.
Third to enter service in the second quarter of 2020 will be F-WBXL, which by then will have had the FTI equipment removed and its interior prepared for service. The fourth BelugaXL is due to arrive in 2021 (assembly work on this airframe will begin in Q4 2019) and the fifth and final jet in 2022 (assembly work to begin in Q4 2020)
This delivery plan means the BelugaSTs will be replaced on a one-for-one basis over several years. The gradual changeover from the first to the second-generation aircraft mirrors the way the BelugaSTs themselves gradually replaced the four Super Guppy outsize transport aircraft Airbus once used to transport subassemblies and components between its production sites (the first BelugaST came on line in January 1996, the second in April 1996, the third in May 1997, the fourth in July 1998 and the fifth in January 2001).
Staggering deliveries of the BelugaXLs will ensure not just a smooth service introduction but also minimal disruption to Airbus’ complex pan-European supply chains during a critical time when the company is ramping-up production on its A320 and A330 families.
Introducing the new Beluga involves more than just the aircraft themselves, however. Ground infrastructure at its facilities requires upgrading to handle the larger airlifter, and Broughton in North Wales, for example, where wings are manufactured, has already received upgrades to the taxiways and had its runway resurfaced. The flight crews at ATI who will operate the aircraft will have to undergo ten weeks of type rating training to qualify for the new airlifter.
Airbus is introducing a high degree of connectivity to the BelugaXL. The company’s Skywise digital data platform is currently being taken on by many Airbus commercial aircraft customers. It uses Rockwell Collins FOMAX architecture to bring performance and maintenance information into a secure cloud-based platform to provide predictive maintenance, investigation tools and optimised flight allocation. The new Belugas will have Skywise; it is natural for ATI, effectively Airbus’ in-house cargo airline, to use it to help with its operations and managing maintenance.
Airbus says the first route to be operated by the aircraft will be Toulouse–Broughton– Bremen. Although it will be some years before the entire BelugaXL fleet is fully constituted, the latest Beluga is flying and on its way. AI