Airbus is adding a sixth BelugaXL to its internal fleet of large cargo transports to ensure the system is capable of future production rate increases.

The company is about to introduce the first of the aircraft, a heavily modified A330, to routine operations later this year. The aircraft flew for the first time in July 2018 and is currently undergoing compatibility and verification tests at Airbus’ various sites.

It also carried a set of A350 wings from Bremen to Toulouse in February. They do not fit into the smaller Beluga ST, a key reason why Airbus felt it needed to build a large outsize cargo transport.

The second Beluga ST is now painted but has not flown yet. Originally, Airbus had planned to build only five of the aircraft, but now wants to have more capacity available. “Years from now, we could see situations such as further rate increases for our jetliners or may encounter one of the airlifters being grounded, which would make this ‘extra’ sixth aircraft an essential part of our transport network,” BelugaXL program head Bertrand George said.

The BelugaXL is based on the Airbus A330-200 and -300. The forward part of the aircraft is a -200 while the rear is a -300—the mix having been selected to optimize its center of gravity. The basic concept is identical to the STs: The cockpit is lowered to allow cargo to be loaded evenly from the front through a large upward opening door with hinges at the top of the fuselage. The XL is 6 m (20 ft.) longer than an ST, 1 m wider and 0.5 m higher. Its maximum payload is 51 tons, compared to 47 for the ST, and it can fly up to 2,300 nm at that load, much longer than the 900 nm for the predecessor. Most important, the XL can fit two A350 wings inside its large cargo bay, eliminating the need for many extra flights.

Major suppliers include Stelia Aerospace (cargo door and forward fuselage), Deharde Aerospace and the P3 Group (upper fuselage), Aernnova (rear fuselage and dorsal fin) and Aciturri (horizontal tail plane extension, auxiliary and ventral fins).

Two XLs will be delivered in 2019, followed by the remaining four at a rate of one per year. Airbus plans to keep the STs until the third XL has been delivered.

The STs are unlikely to be retired even if Airbus decides it does not need them anymore for its in-house production system. They “could continue flying for another 10 to 20 years, so there are possibilities of a second operational life,” said Phillipe Sabo, head of Airbus Transport International, the unit that operates the fleet. One option is to sell them one by one to companies in need of large-volume freighters. Another one is for ATI to keep operating them on behalf of outside customers.

Jens Flottau/Aviation Week