The Airbus Beluga Super Transporter

With production centers in a number of different locations throughout Europe, each specializing in the manufacture of sections of aircraft which are later assembled, Airbus needs reliable methods of transport between its various factories. For twenty years the Airbus A300-600ST (Super Transporter) has played a major role in this transport network. Airbus operates five of these super transporters, nicknamed “Beluga” because of their shape being similar to the Beluga whale.

When Airbus decided to create its own transport system to keep up with the growing demand for airplanes in the early 1990s, designers modified the frame of the Airbus A300-600 – an airplane with a proven track record of reliability. The aircraft’s top section was cut and a bubble-shaped fuselage section was added, while the cockpit was lowered, allowing for the loading and unloading of cargo to take place through the front of the Beluga. The Beluga’s payload is 47 tons, and while there are other aircraft with a higher maximum payload, the Beluga’s spacious cargo hold makes it perfect for transporting unwieldy and odd-shaped cargo that is not excessively heavy. For example, the Beluga can transport an A340 airliner’s wings, or even the A350 wide-body aircraft’s fuselage section. It does have limitations, however, and larger parts, such as those for the A380 Super Jumbo, are transported by road, boat or barge.

In the five years since its first commercial flight, the double-decker Airbus A380 has become a familiar sight at the world’s largest airports, some of which had to widen and strengthen their runways to accommodate the huge aircraft. The airplane’s parts are made in different manufacturing plants. The wings are made in Broughton, Wales; the forward and middle fuselages in St Nazaire, France; the rear fuselage in Hamburg, Germany; and the horizontal tailplane in Cadiz, Spain.

As the demand for airplanes continues to increase, and taking into account that Airbus has become more globalized with assembly plants in Alabama and China, the company is reportedly looking at cargo aircraft designs to replace the aging Belugas. The new aircraft, currently referred to as the Beluga XL, will be able to carry heavier payloads and have a longer range. It seems very likely that the characteristic “Beluga” shape will remain relatively unchanged.