Airbus Beluga XL’s First Flight Approaching

True whale of an aircraft offers improved odd-size cargo operations.

The Beluga XL is expected to enter service in 2019.Airbus

The first time I spied that chunky Beluga on the ramp at Toulouse France as I taxied out for takeoff, it was clear the converted Airbus A300 was created for a very special task, carrying large, oddly-shaped cargo. But there’s little denying the Beluga is also one of the homeliest airplanes I’ve ever seen, reminding me of a creature with a huge body matched with a tiny head. Ugly or exotic, Airbus found a market for the airplane 20 years ago, transporting some fuselage parts for the massive A380.

The Beluga fleet eventually grew to five aircraft, but the airplane by any standard is pretty long in the tooth having first flown in 1983. In addition to an aging airplane, Airbus envisioned a larger capacity platform and so the Beluga XL, based on the A330 platform, was born.

The new Beluga fleet will also grow to five aircraft.Airbus

The new Beluga XL, expected to enter service sometime next year, is 20 feet longer and three feet wider than the original A300 version. With more efficient engines, the XL will also haul six tons more cargo the first whales. That translates into two sets of A350 wings per trip rather than only one. When the new Belugas replace the earlier versions, they will also make it easier to transport A380 components, like wing sections, while eliminating the time-consuming overland excursion and barge travel Airbus has been using for years.