After serving as the programme’s test platform since 2018, in June 2024 the last of six BelugaXLs entered service. These successors to the A300-600ST, the iconic original ‘Beluga’, continue its mission to strengthen the company’s industrial capabilities. Time for some heavy lifting!

The fleet is complete. In June 2024, the last BelugaXL (BXL) joined its five siblings at Airbus Transport International (ATI) after serving as the type’s test aircraft. ATI, an Airbus subsidiary, has been the company’s internal airline since 1996.

Offering 30% more payload capacity than its predecessor the A300-600ST, the BXL is central to Airbus’ accelerating production ramp-up. The six specially commissioned airlifters, built in Toulouse, France, carry sub-assemblies and components between Airbus’ European manufacturing sites. Each mission averages a turnaround time of just 70 minutes, thanks to specially designed loading facilities at plants in France, Germany, Spain and the UK.

Creating the ‘Beluga spirit’

The final handover to ATI marks the closure of the BelugaXL programme, launched in 2014. The development team was centralised, bringing some 1,000 Airbus engineers and suppliers together in one place to shorten decision loops and simplify processes. Parts, equipment and design principles were re-used and borrowed from other Airbus platforms wherever possible. All this helped the BXL go from the drawing board to its first flight in just five years.

“We created the BelugaXL, but also what we called the BXL spirit – making the impossible possible,” says Bertrand George, who led the plane’s development. Although each of the six aircraft was certified and delivered on time, getting the BXL programme off the ground was no walk in the park.

“Our instructions were to halve the BXL’s original development cost, and deliver the first aircraft – certified as a normal A330ceo – within five years,” recalls Bertrand. “Fortunately we had carte blanche to explore novel approaches to make it happen. Those experiences will be beneficial to future programmes in all of Airbus’ businesses.”

Looking back, Bertrand can still recall the emotion of the first flight. “What was a truck in the morning was an aircraft by the afternoon,” he says. “You see the work of thousands of people and thousands of hours taking flight in front of your eyes.”

As is traditional for the first airframe to leave the assembly line, BXL#1 did not enter service immediately. Instead, following its maiden flight, it served as the programme’s test platform until 2023. In four years, the giant airlifter completed over 800 flight test hours during which pilots explored how the BXL handled the kind of operating conditions it would encounter when travelling between 11 European destinations.

Now, after a well-deserved rest and a major refurbishment, BXL#1 is ready to carry its share of the load. The extra lift is welcome, as every Airbus commercial aircraft programme is increasing production through 2024.

Bigger, better and flying with SAF

Based on the A330-200 freighter, each BelugaXL has a payload capacity of 51 tonnes and a range of 2,200 nautical miles. The aircraft is as long as two blue whales and as tall as a three-storey office block. Its hold is big enough to swallow 26 small cars, or seven elephants. Most importantly, the airlifter can accommodate the largest A350 fuselage section or two of the widebody’s 30-metre long wings – whereas its predecessor could only carry one.

ATI’s BelugaXL fleet is forecast to reach 9,500 flight hours annually by 2027, compared to a planned 6,500 flight hours in 2024. Furthermore, like its predecessor, the BXL can operate with a blend of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), helping Airbus reach its goal of steadily increasing SAF use in its internal air operations.

Already in 2023 SAF accounted for over half of ATI’s fuel consumption. The drop-in sustainable fuel is already available across almost all the BXL’s European network. By 2030 the entirety of the fleet’s flight operations will be performed with SAF, in accordance with Airbus’ sustainability roadmap. The BXL’s greater capacity also means fewer flights are required compared to its predecessor. It’s expected that in 2024, the six aircraft combined will transport around five per cent more payload compared to 2019’s mixed BXL and Beluga ST fleet. ATI itself says it will emit 20% fewer carbon emissions in 2024, also compared to 2019.

ATI hopes to operate the BelugaXL for thirty years. The programme’s production infrastructure – gigantic jigs and tooling – is slowly being decommissioned and committed to storage, just in case additional BXLs would be needed in future. Now that the last aircraft has finally joined the fleet after proving how capable the BelugaXL is, one thing is sure: it’ll have a whale of a time.

Airbus release

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