Some say size doesn’t matter – but it does if you want a plane big enough to transport an entire aircraft wing.
Behold the remarkable BelugaXL, an Airbus mega-plane with a Beluga-whale-shaped nose that’s used to transport Airbus wings around Europe.
Nicky Kelvin, Editor at Large at The Points Guy, finds out more about this astonishing freighter – type A330-743L – in a fascinating video for a series he presents called Airplane Mode.
The travel expert goes behind the scenes at the colossal Airbus facility in Broughton, North Wales, which BelugaXL aircraft fly in and out of multiple times a day.
Nicky says in his video: ‘Today, we’re going to get swallowed by this beast. This is the aircraft that transports parts all around Europe for Airbus.’
In a fascinating video for a series called Airplane Mode, Nicky Kelvin, Editor at Large at The Points Guy, visits the Airbus facility in Broughton, North Wales, and learns about the BelugaXL mega-plane, which transports plane parts – including wings – around Europe
Once on the ground, the BelugaXL is pulled via a tug into an enormous aircraft hangar, where its cargo hold is loaded
Pictured here are some of the airliner wings that have come off the production line at Broughton
Entering into service in 2020, the BelugaXL has the largest cross-section of any cargo aircraft in the world. It stands 18 metres (59ft) tall, 63 metres (206ft) long and eight metres (26ft) wide.
With a maximum payload capacity of 50 tonnes, the bulky BelugaXL has the power to carry seven adult male African elephants for a range of 4,000 kilometres (2,485 miles) – that’s roughly the distance from London to the North Pole. Instead, it operates as a crucial part of the Airbus production line.
In the video, Nicky explains: ‘Airbus… is made up of Spanish, German, British and French companies that all now come together under the Airbus umbrella. But because of that they make the parts of the planes all over the place.
‘Here [in Broughton] they make the wings, and the Beluga aircraft come in to take them to the places to be attached onto the fuselages of the planes.’
Meeting with Airbus UK Head of Supply Chain Paul Kilmister, Nicky watches as a Beluga XL lands from a recent expedition to Toulouse, where it had delivered wings earlier that day.
As Paul explains: ‘Today, we’re going to see Lima India come in – our XL3. We’re going to take off our empty jigs, and we’re going to fill her back up again with a couple of 330 wings.’
Once landed, the plane is pulled via a tug into the enormous aircraft hangar.
The BelugaXL operates as a crucial part of the Airbus production line
The BelugaXL is able to transport two A350 wings at a time. Above is a still from Nicky’s video showing a wing being loaded
Nicky is in awe as the plane opens its enormous door (‘this is insane!’) to offload its empty jig
Nicky describes climbing inside the BelugaXL as like boarding a spaceship
Nicky talks to Paul Kilmister, the UK Head of Supply Chain for Airbus. Paul is responsible for all of the aircraft parts flowing into the Broughton facility from other European Airbus factories, as well as the enormous wings that the BelugaXL carries out for assembly
Nicky is in awe as the plane opens its enormous door (‘this is insane!’) to offload its empty jig onto a Beluga Interface Rack (BIR – a piece of equipment that bridges the gap between the craft and the cargo boarders), moving forward on rails onto a cargo boarder loader (the vehicles used to take loads to and from the aircraft).
Amazed at the size of the cargo bay inside the Beluga XL, Nicky asks Paul about its capacity and size.
Paul explains: ‘At the opening, the doors are 7.5 metres by 8.1 metres, so they are as big as they’re looking! In terms of capacity, we’re able to take two A350 1000 wings.’
That’s a sizeable payload – each wing of an Airbus A350 is 106ft (32m) long and 18ft (6m) wide. The wings are loaded onto the plane using tracks and the BIR.
You may expect such hefty freight to take an age to position on the plane. But the process is surprisingly speedy.
As Paul explains, the process of the plane landing, entering the hangar, offloading its empty jig and then onboarding a new payload is very efficient: ‘We’re really proud of our turn time here in Broughton. We’re consistently turning the aircraft from chocks to chocks in 60 minutes.’
That turnaround time means the Airbus facility can accommodate six BelugaXL payloads in a day.
The interior of the BelugaXL. Its enormous cargo bay has the largest cross-section of any plane in the world, and has a 50-tonne payload capacity – that’s seven adult male African elephants
Nicky speaks to a BelugaXL pilot, who loves his job: ‘We have a very nice office you know. The wallpaper is changing all the time, and the view is wonderful’
With the wings safely loaded, the plane is destined to transport them to a factory in Bremen, Germany, to be fully equipped, before ultimately heading to an assembly facility in Toulouse to be attached to a fuselage.
Before take-off, Nicky gets to climb aboard the BelugaXL to look around its enormous cargo bay and meet the pilots.
Climbing aboard, Nicky marvels: ‘I feel like I’m getting on some kind of spaceship here.’
From the cockpit, the pilot notes what a fun job he has: ‘We have a very nice office you know. The wallpaper is changing all the time, and the view is wonderful.’
He also expands on how impressive the plane is, stating that despite its lumbering size it is high-performance, able to make both very short take-offs and landings. When Nicky asks if the plane flies differently when fully loaded, the pilot says ‘there is not a big big difference’.
That’s because the unique craft is powered by twin Rolls-Royce Trent 700 turbofan engines. It also has a lowered cockpit to facilitate its colossal cargo bay.
With a lowered cockpit to allow for more space, the enormous cargo bay inside the BelugaXL gives it its distinctive, top-heavy shape and bulbous nose. Cheekily, the plane has eyes and a smile painted on its side, making it a surprisingly friendly looking plane
A fully loaded BelugaXL. They can be loaded up and prepped for take-off in one hour flat
That massive cargo bay also gives the BelugaXL its distinctive, top-heavy shape and bulbous nose. Cheekily, the plane has eyes and a wee smile painted on its side, so in spite of its hulking frame it’s a surprisingly friendly looking plane.
The XL is the latest in a storied lineage of aquatic-inspired carrier aircraft. In the video, Nicky explains: ‘In the 70s and 80s Airbus were using aircraft called Super Guppies to transport everything around the world.’
From 1995, they introduced the much larger Belugas, and as of 2020 they are now phasing in a fleet of BelugaXL, which have 30 per cent more capacity than their most recent predecessors (the original Belugas could only carry one A350 wing at a time).
At the end of his trip to the Airbus facility, Nicky watches the BelugaXL take off, fully loaded, for its jaunt to Bremen. Delighted, he concludes: ‘Today has been insane. Watching that take-off is aviation dreams coming true. The whole experience today has been unbelievable.’
To see the full video click here. For more from The Points Guy visit thepointsguy.com/uk-travel.