Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 February 2020

Whale of a time: Airbus' new BelugaXL takes its first flight

The long-awaited aircraft looks like a giant flying whale and has the world's largest cargo cross section

The Airbus BelugaXL has entered operational service.The huge aircraft will be used to transport oversized cargo to Airbus sites in Europe and China. Courtesy Airbus
The Airbus BelugaXL has entered operational service.The huge aircraft will be used to transport oversized cargo to Airbus sites in Europe and China. Courtesy Airbus

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's a whale, says Airbus as its long-awaited BelugaXL took its first operational flight.

The giant aircraft is 63 metres long, eight metres wide and has the largest cargo bay cross-section of all existing cargo aircraft in the world.

The jet successfully completed its first operational flight after banking more than 700 test flight hours. Airbus has been working on the project for more than five years and will now gradually replace its existing BelugaST fleet with six new BelugaXL aircraft.

The shape of the Airbus BelugaXL resembles the Arctic cetacean. 
The shape of the Airbus BelugaXL resembles the Arctic cetacean, the beluga whale.

Named after the Arctic cetacean, Airbus has playfully added a smiling face to the massive jet, which is considerably longer than a real-life beluga whale. The aircraft is closer in size to two blue whales – the world's largest animals – placed nose to tail.

The BelugaXL's nose measures in at 18.9 metres high — about the height of a three-storey building.

An elephant-sized payload

The aircraft has a wingspan of almost 45 metres, making the six new BelugaXL jets some of the largest in the sky.

With a maximum payload of 51 tonnes, the jet can carry seven full-size elephants and still have cargo space to spare. It will be used to fly oversized aircraft parts to Airbus jetliner assembly lines.

The giant flying 'whale' can easily carry two A350 XWB wings in one flight. Fully-loaded it can cover distances up to 2,200 nautical miles.

The plane will fly between Airbus' 11 production sites in Europe to the company's assembly lines in France, Germany and China.

Recycling the A330

The design of the BelugaXL re-uses existing components and equipment from Airbus' A330 wide-body range. It is powered by Rolls-Royce Trent 700 engines.

Airbus re-designed the existing A330 freighter jet to create the BelugaXL. Engineers lowered the flight deck, added a huge cargo bay onto the fuselage and modified the rear and tail section of the aircraft to give it its distinctive shape.

The BelugaXL has completed over 200 test flights and will now complement Airbus' existing road, rail and sea transportation methods.

Is it the world's biggest plane?

The Ukrainian Antonov An-225 is the world's largest operational cargo aircraft. Courtesy flickr /Kārlis Dambrāns  
The Ukrainian Antonov An-225 is the world's largest operational cargo aircraft. Courtesy Karlis Dambrans

The BelugaXL has the largest cargo bay cross-section of all existing cargo aircraft in the world, but it's not the biggest operational aircraft.

That title belongs to the Antonov An-225, a Ukrainian-built aircraft that's affectionately referred to as Mriya, a name that means dream in Ukrainian.

The Antonov An-225 is 84 metres long, making it about a cricket pitch length larger than the BeglugaXL. The jet has been flying commercially since 2001, and has a landing gear made up of 32 wheels.

The Hughes H-4 Hercules was the largest wingspan aircraft ever to have flown, despite only being airborne for 26 seconds. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons 
The Hughes H-4 Hercules was the largest wingspan aircraft ever to have flown, despite only being airborne for 26 seconds. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Larger still is the Hughes H-4 Hercules "Spruce Goose". This aircraft was built in 1947 with a wingspan of 97.54 metres. A few metres longer in length than the Airbus BelugaXL, it made only one flight which lasted less than thirty seconds. Despite this, it held the title of the world's largest flying aircraft for over seven decades. It now lives in an aviation museum in Oregon.

At 73 meters long with a wingspan of 117 metres, the Stratolaunch is the world's largest plane. Courtesy Stratolaunch  
At 73 meters long with a wingspan of 117 metres, the Stratolaunch is the world's largest plane. Courtesy Stratolaunch

In 2019, Stratolaunch's Model 351 – a twin-fuselage project founded by former Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen – took the record from the Hughes H-4 Hercules when it took off from Mojave, California and successfully flew for 149 minutes.

Updated: January 19, 2020 03:06 PM

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