Huge aircraft gets even huger

Bearing a striking resemblance to the aquatic mammal of the same name, the Airbus Beluga just got larger after the ‘XL’ variant joined the fleet earlier this year. Key.Aero examines its origins and details the type’s impressive features 

The Airbus Beluga has been flying in the skies above Europe since 1995 but earlier this year, the unusual-looking aircraft grew in size when the ‘XL’ variant was introduced by the Netherlands-based manufacturer.


Origins of the Beluga 

The Beluga – which is categorised as a large transport aircraft – was specifically designed by Airbus to carry component parts between its multiple European manufacturing facilities. 

Most aircraft producers are multinational corporations and it’s not unusual for them to spread their sites across separate locations. As a result, there is a need for Airbus to be able to transport assembled parts between its facilities and final assembly lines. 

Super Guppy
The Aero Spacelines Super Guppy was developed from the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser. Wikimedia Commons/Michel Gilliand

When the manufacturer began making aircraft 1970, it used the Aero Spacelines Super Guppy to move components between its sites.  

In the 1980s, the airframer looked for an aircraft to replace this ageing turboprop and considered using various types including the Antonov An-124, An-225, Ilyushin Il-86 and Boeing 747. The use of existing airframes was eventually discounted due to a lack of internal space to accommodate the desired components, so instead the manufacturer decided to modify one of its own designs.

The A300 was Airbus' first commercial aircraft. Its maiden flight occurred on October 28, 1972. Flickr Commons/Aero Icarus

The Airbus A300-600 was eventually selected, and construction work began on the first aircraft in September 1992. 

Following a total of 335 flight hours during its flight test programme, the Airbus A300-600ST ‘Beluga’ was awarded a restricted type certificate on October 15, 1995. 

Airbus Beluga
The Airbus A300-600ST "Beluga" entered service in September 1995. Wikimedia Commons/Brian Bukowski

Four more airframes were produced at around the rate of one per year for a total of five operational examples. 

Bigger and Better 

In 2013, Airbus realised that its five original Belugas could not cope with the production growth the company had experienced since the 1990s, and once again the manufacturer assessed its options before choosing to alter one of its own designs.

Airbus A330
The Airbus A330 was first introduced in January 1994 after making its maiden flight in November 1994. Flickr Commons/Aero Icarus

This time, the A330 was selected for modifications. The XL is a combination of multiple variants of the type – the aft section is based upon the A330-300 while its forward segment comprises the -200 for centre of gravity purposes. The reinforced cargo floor comes from the -200F.  

The unpressurised cargo hold begins with an adapted tail assembly produced by Spain’s Aernnova and continues forward by building the upper fuselage with a pair of side panels and a top piece for each section. The maximum diameter is 8.8m compared with 5.64m on the standard A330.

Beluga XL
The Beluga XLs wear a special paint scheme which gives a nod to their marine namesake. Flickr Commons/Dylan Agbagni 

At the front of the aircraft is a 24-latch vertically opening freight door. The vertical stabiliser at the rear of the airframe is 50% larger and features auxiliary upright fins on the horizontal tailplane – these are required to improve aircraft stability. 

Beluga XL with two wings
In a major milestone, the Beluga XL delivered two Airbus A350 XWB wings on February 19, 2019. Airbus

The new Beluga XL is 30% larger overall than the previous generation and as a result, can carry two A350 XWB wings instead of just one. The new fuselage is also nearly 7m (23ft) longer and 2m (6.5ft) wider. 


Compared with the standard A330 the Beluga XL has a service ceiling of only 35,000ft and a maximum cruise speed of Mach 0.69, compared with 41,000ft and Mach 0.86 on the standard jet.

Beluga XL First Flight
The Airbus Beluga XL first flew on July 19, 2018. Airbus

In November 2019, the internal aircraft programme was awarded a Type Certification by regulators following an intensive testing schedule that saw the Beluga XL complete more than 200 individual checks, clocking over 700 flight hours. 

On January 9 this year, the first example, F-GXLH (c/n 1853) entered service with Airbus Transport International – a subsidiary the manufacturer uses to operate the widebodies. 

Labelled 'XL2', F-GXLH was the first airframe to enter service with Airbus Transport International. Airbus

Five more freighters are due to enter service by the end of 2023 while the previous A300-600STs are expected to begin being phased out from next year.