ETOPS – Airbus BelugaXL To Start Transatlantic Trips?

By Spyros Georgilidakis | February 6, 2021

Airbus will seek ETOPS certification for at least some of its new BelugaXL freighters. So it looks like these unique aircraft will see more uses.

The news comes from BelugaXL chief engineer Pascal Vialleton. In a recent presentation at a Royal Aeronautical Society event, he mentioned that Airbus is pursuing a 180-minute ETOPS certification for the BelugaXL. This will likely involve only the last few aircraft to come out of production. A total of six BelugaXL are on Airbus’ build schedule. They will eventually replace the original five BelugaST aircraft.

ETOPS – Airbus BelugaXL To Start Transatlantic Trips?

Well before its ETOPS plans, Airbus got EASA certification for the BelugaXL in early 2020. It was yet another event that didn’t really feature heavily, in that year. The original Beluga’s name is the Airbus A300-600ST. So it was a modification of the pre-fly-by-wire generation of Airbus aircraft. Although the A300-600 did actually have some fly-by-wire elements.


Airbus BelugaXL – Bigger, Longer-Legged And In Need Of ETOPS

The Airbus A330 is a direct descendant of the A300-600, so it made perfect sense for the larger BelugaXL to use the A330 as its starting point. The XL is seven metres longer and its cargo space is a metre wider. So, the plane can carry two A350 wings in one trip, instead of one! Its more powerful engines mean it can carry a bit more weight, too. And it incorporates a more cargo-like floor, to ease loading and unloading. That alone halves the time that these operations take.

ETOPS – Airbus BelugaXL To Start Transatlantic Trips?
Old and new!

Until now there was little reason for Airbus’ BelugaXL or ST fleet to get ETOPS approval. The aircraft’s purpose is to transport aircraft components between Airbus production sites. This typically means flying between Britain, France, Germany and Spain, primarily. Airbus has production and assembly sites elsewhere, of course. But these don’t usually involve oversized parts and assemblies.

ETOPS – Airbus BelugaXL To Start Transatlantic Trips?
One of the original BelugaST aircraft, unloading Columbus, a part of the International Space Station

However, in its career so far, the Beluga fleet has carried other things, beyond aircraft components. It seems that ETOPS certification for the Airbus BelugaXL has to do primarily with such missions. Airbus also has a space programme. So occasionally it needs to carry cumbersome space vehicle components. The Beluga fleet is ideal for this job.

And there is some irony to this. The original BelugaST replaced the Boeing SuperGuppy, in transporting aircraft sections. But the SuperGuppy’s original job, was transporting space rocket sections! It is fitting, then, that the young kids get to do grandpa’s job, from time to time. The A300-600ST did it without ETOPS, but Airbus wants to make the BelugaXL’s job a bit easier.

The Apollo 11 Command Module, hitching a ride on a Super Guppy that later joined Airbus


More Roles On The Cards?

Inevitably, this story raises a simple question. With ETOPS, are we going to see the Airbus BelugaXL take on more conventional cargo roles? We have already seen how oversize loads will get difficult to work with, in the future. The Boeing 747’s production is coming to an end. The Antonov An-124 (and its solitary An-225 off-shoot) is also quite capable, but there are only 20 of them. As they eventually get older, will we see Belugas replacing them?

ETOPS – Airbus BelugaXL To Start Transatlantic Trips?

The answer is no. Not for the most part, anyway. ETOPS will allow the Airbus BelugaXL to get around the world more easily, yes. But in terms of weight, it can only carry about half what the 747-400F will. The An-124 will carry even more. However a lot of ‘outsize’ loads are more about volume than weight. But even so, the shape of the Beluga’s space best fits aircraft parts: wings or fuselage sections. Or rocket parts, of course.

And then there is pressurization – or lack thereof. ETOPS or not, the only pressurized part in the Airbus BelugaXL is the lower-front half of the fuselage. Stelia Aerospace builds this section, which incorporates the nose gear, the cockpit and the rest of the crew’s living space. However the cargo area has no pressurization or temperature control. This might be OK with some cargo, but certainly not all of it.

The pressurized part of a Beluga. Quiz: how do you get in it?

For now, therefore, we can expect to see Airbus’ BelugaXL fleet using its ETOPS approval to carry space rocket components. But of course Airbus has assembly plants in the US and Canada. They may have not needed the Belugas at all, until now. But if the option is there, perhaps it could influence some future plans..?

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