Beluga XL: facts and figures of a ‘worthwhale’ project

Right now everybody is talking about the Beluga XL, the newest and most distinctive member of the Airbus family, and its maiden flight which took place last 19 July. Its unmistakable humpbacked silhouette riding the heaven continues to delight not only to aviation enthusiasts, but also to anyone who enjoys breathtaking scenes and impressive footages.

This exceptional programme milestone was witnessed by Airbus employees, programme partners, the media and the rest of the more than 10,000 participants gathered at Toulouse-Blagnac airport near the company’s headquarters.

At 10:30 AM local time as scheduled, the aircraft was taking off from Toulouse –Blagnac airport, and after four hours and eleven minutes in the skies flying over southern France, it made its first final approach at the same point.

Beluga XL first flight route on flightradar24.

Right after performing taxi-in, the first Beluga XL aircrew emerged from behind the cargo door and was received by the cheering audience, among whom were the head of the Beluga XL programme Bertrand George; the Airbus Commercial Aircraft President, Guillaume Faury; and the head of programmes Didier Evrard.

“Today you brought us a dream, but there’s even one thing we have that you don’t: we saw this beautiful aircraft in flight! Today marks a major step towards achieving our industrial goals.”– Guillaume Faury, Airbus Commercial Aircraft President, to the first Beluga XL aircrew.

Beluga XL First Flight aircrew received at Toulouse-Blagnac airport.

This is a summary of one of the most remarkable events took place coinciding with the Day 4 of Farnborough Airshow 2018. But of course, there are serious business purposes supporting such an outstanding programme. What are its main features, and the goals behind the scenes of this amazing first flight? Let’s go deep into them:

Main drivers for Beluga XL

Unlike many people could think, air transport is the most effective logistic option to guarantee the Airbus just-in-time production system. Based on customer commitments, the volume of parts and components ferried between Airbus sites has reached record levels, and the Beluga ST flight hours have increased by over a third since November 2014 when Beluga XL programme started.

European Airbus Sites map.

Forecasted A350 XWB and single-aisle ramp up figures were crystal clear, showing an upcoming production critical phase. Next decade commitments would have been unreachable by the current Beluga ST fleet, so that the Beluga XL becomes the key enabler as the step further needed to keep on meeting customer expectations.

Programme next steps

Beluga XL Flight Test Team patch.

After a development phase of 44 months, the Beluga XL has reached its maiden flight on time, cost and quality by using a plateau approach. During this stage, a single roof was shared by the whole team and suppliers, which allowed to ease communication and ensure cross-collaboration.

The first flight has been only the starting point of a certification campaign which will involve two aircraft for ten months and comprise 750 flight hours. The first aircraft underwent more than 72 development and certification ground tests before lifting off.

The entry into service is scheduled in 2019 following certification, being the complete fleet composed of five aircraft. The second aircraft will enter into service after its own maiden flight in spring 2019, followed by the third one later that year. The fourth and fifth ones will arrive yearly, and before the complete retirement of Beluga ST fleet.

The A330-700L, known as Beluga XL, will be certified as a derivative of the A330-200 freighter. Nothing new as its predecessor the A300-600 ST, known as Beluga ST, was a derivative of the A300, and other Airbus products as for instance the well-known A330 MRTT (Multi Role Tanker Transport) are derivatives as well.

Airbus Transport International (ATI), an Airbus subsidiary created in 1996, that currently operates the fleet of five A300-600 ST Beluga cargo aircraft, will operate the Beluga XL fleet as well.

Beluga XL enhancements compared to its predecessor

When comparing the Beluga XL to the Beluga ST, their similarities are clearly visible: a cockpit placed below fuselage to maximize the available loading area, the bubbled shaped cargo hold to keep its aerodynamic profile, the two vertical fins added to the extended Horizontal Tail Plane (HTP) to guarantee the aircraft stability, and so on.

Beluga ST and Beluga XL face to face at Toulouse-Blagnac airport.

However, their differences are noticeable enough to make the Beluga XL a far better option for Airbus to keep facing its air transport logistics. Compared to its predecessor, it has a 1m wider cross-section, a 6m longer cargo deck, and a 0.4m increment in payload max height. Bringing altogether an increase in transport capacity of 30%.

The Beluga XL enlarged cargo hold can accommodate a complete set of A350 XWB wings, rather than the mid-set that the Beluga ST is able, speeding up their transport from Broughton to the programme’s final assembly line in Toulouse. It can also carry the A350 XWB’s largest fuselage section with room to spare. These facts are key in order to meet ramp up needs beyond current planned levels.

Beluga XL Infographic.

Concerning operational capabilities, the Range and Payload have been increased as well as the Maximum Take-off Weight (MTOW), whereas the turnaround time has been almost halved. As consequence, the power plants have been updated from the General Electric original ones to the brand new Rolls Royce Trent 700R to provide with more thrust. Each aircraft is expected to perform between 900 and 1,000 flights per year, which corresponds to approximately 1,700 hours in the air.

Did you know?


Its smiling and striking livery compared to its predecessors’ one, was chosen among six different options proposed by Airbus branding team to its employees in an election campaign that attracted almost 21,000 participants. This idea was supported by the stakeholders as a way to engage Airbus teams and to develop Airbus’ identity.

“The six designs we proposed respect our brand identity while running from the conventional to the unconventional, even adding a touch of fun. After a detailed analysis we added a large XL and developed the final livery. We just hope everyone likes it!” – Tim Orr, Head of Airbus Branding.

Beluga XL: the perfect reflection of the state of the art in aircraft manufacturing.

Electroluminescent (ELM) paint technology to further highlight the final livery’s definition was considered as well, but with roll-out expected during the first quarter of 2018, the planning constraints were eventually imposed.

Electroluminescent painting technology on Airbus A350-1000.

Other uses:

The Beluga ST fleet has been used for carrying other payloads apart from Airbus aircraft sections. These payloads were from launch vehicles parts or International Space Station components to military materials to forward operating bases or recovered material for maintenance and repair. These could be interesting options to give the Beluga ST fleet a second life after its full retirement from Airbus operations.


They are not the only ones of their kind. Highly demanding logistic needs are not exclusive of Airbus, and there are other companies and organizations which use air transport solutions to manage them too. Some relevant examples of them are Boeing and its Dreamlifter, NASA and its Aero Spacelines Super Guppy, and the former USSR and its 6 engined Antonov 225.

Boeing Dreamlifter.
NASA Aero Spacelines Super Guppy.
Former USSR Antonov 225.

For some people, the Beluga remains only as an awkwardly shaped aircraft, whereas for others it is the cutest flying beauty they have ever seen. What is not a matter of opinion is the innovative and outstanding product it is. Hopefully, many other remarkable industry developments like this one will be witnessed in the following years.

Beluga XL First Flight take-off aerial view.
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