Airbus’s cargo plane known as the beluga whale plane

The Beluga Plane: The World’s Strangest Shaped Plane

The Beluga XL plane, also simply known as the Whale Plane, is one of the strangest planes in the world. Looking totally unlike normal cargo planes, the unique shape has even led some people to ask if it’s a Photoshop or a real plane!

We can confirm, the plane is very much real and is named after the Beluga whale. It’s a cargo-only plane designed by Airbus to carry unusual loads. Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about this strange aircraft!

What is the Beluga plane used for?

The Beluga XL plane is used for carrying specialist cargo. Unlike normal cargo planes that — apart from the lack of windows — look almost identical to their passenger counterparts, the Beluga plane has oversized doors and a giant volumetric space, giving it its distinctive shape.

Why the strange shape? That’s because it’s designed for a very nice role, specifically carrying aircraft wings! Operated by Airbus themselves, under the heading of Airbus Transport International, the company use these transport aircraft to move oversized aircraft parts — that wouldn’t fit in normal cargo aircraft — between their factories.

Airbus designed the XL version as an improvement over the original Beluga transport, with the larger space designed to carry two A350 aircraft wings instead of one.

Beluga whale swimming

3 top whale plane facts

  • The giant space is accessed by one of the world’s largest doors! At 10 m (ca. 33 ft) wide and 8 m (ca. 26 ft) high, the whale plane’s XL-sized door weighs over 3 tonnes!
  • Despite the huge volumetric space making it possible to carry oversized loads, such as generators, helicopters, and even other planes, the Beluga XL isn’t a heavy lift aircraft. The interesting aerodynamics mean that the maximum takeoff weight of the Beluga XL is 227,000 kg, 6000 kg less than the freighter variant it’s based on and 15,000 kg less than a standard A330.
  • As Airbus’s second version of the whale plane, the XL has improved aerodynamics and more modern engines. As a result, while it looks similar to the original beluga, the Xl variant can travel over two and a half times further. With range massively increased from 900 nm – 2300!

What is the beluga based on?

Formally designated as a variant of the Airbus A330-200F, the beluga is a mix of the A330-200 and the A330-300 freighter shown below.

A330-243F DHL cargo aircraft

During the design process, airbus tried to use as many standard parts — already used on other Airbus aircraft models — as they could. This was to reduce the initial production costs of the aircraft because the Beluga is not for external sale, and is made in very limited numbers.

However, the highly adapted model has still ended up with over 8,000 custom-made parts, and an entirely custom horizontal stabiliser design.

8,000 new parts are needed to prepare the junction line on which the enlarged freight hold will be mounted.

2nd Beluga XL — FlightGlobal

One of the key differences between the typical freighter models and the beluga Xl is the tail plane. Needing a giant stabiliser to help handle the weight distribution of oversized loads, Its vertical stabiliser is 50% larger than A330 freight models. This tailplane also has auxiliary fins on the horizontal stabiliser, and two ventral fins beneath the empennage to provide additional aerodynamic stability.

What is the plane’s official name?

The official model number for the Beluga XL plane is the A330-743L. This is a special variant of the A330 freighter aircraft.

The previous model, which first gained the Beluga nickname, was officially known as the A300-600ST. This was largely based around the A300 freighter.

How many Beluga planes are there?

There are currently 11 Beluga aircraft in operation.

  • The six newest Beluga XL planes work directly in-house for Airbus, replacing the older variant.
  • The first XL plane entered service in January 2020 and has been carrying cargo between Airbus’s construction facilities ever since!
  • Until 2022 Airbus kept flying the original variant alongside the newer model, operating a mixed fleet.
  • At the start of 2022, the 5 original Beluga were retired from in-house duties, with the A300-600 aircraft available to hire for oversized air freight.

Spot the difference

Newest airbus beluga XL cargo aircraft based on the A330

The newest Beluga XL variant

The original variant of the Beluga plane known as the A300-600ST

The original A300-600ST

What’s it like to fly?

Like all modern Airbus aircraft, the Whale plane is fully fly-by-wire. So from a pilot’s perspective, the manual handling is not significantly different to normally shaped aircraft:

  • Inputs from the pilots are routed to the physical flight controls via a suite of onboard computers.
  • Airbus design engineers can “tune out” any interesting aerodynamic differences via computer software, making the aircraft feel very similar to the A330 aircraft to fly, despite its wildly different shape!
  • Airbus used a similar trick on the world’s largest commercial aircraft — the A380 — making it similar to the significantly smaller A320 aircraft.

From a performance perspective, the unusual aerodynamics are more tricky to avoid. The Beluga has a smaller performance envelope to the original A330-200 freighter, with slightly reduced payload and dramatically reduced range. It can operate at up to 35,000ft (ca. 11 km), and cruises significantly slower at a speed of M0.69.

Is the Beluga Cargo only?

Yes. However, within the cabin there is a section for a four-person loading team, alongside two operational pilots, and a jump-seat in the cockpit.

As a result, the maximum number of onboard crew is seven.

Summary

The newest variant of the famous Whale plane is officially titled the Beluga XL. Operated by an in-house team for carrying cargo only, the Beluga XL aircraft has a specialist role transporting oversized aircraft pieces between Airbus’s factories.

An improvement on the original Whale plane — simply called the A300-600ST — the Beluga XL can fly faster, higher, and significantly further than the original.

Crucially for the world’s largest aircraft manufacturer, it can ferry two Airbus A350 wings at once, halving the number of trips between factories. As demand for the A350 grows and Airbus desperately aims to increase production, the current fleet of 6 Beluga XLs is set to increase to 11 in total.

While the original Whale plane was officially retired from in-house duties by Airbus in early 2022, they continue to fly, and are now being outsourced for specialist transportation roles around the globe.

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