Airbus Hunchback Beluga Plays Star Role in A350 Ramp-Up

Airbus SAS’s record aircraft output relies increasingly on a fleet of transport planes named after an arctic whale that help ferry large parts across Europe.

The European manufacturer plans to operate its fleet of five Belugas at 10,000 hours annually by 2017. That’s twice their usage in 2011, as the hunchbacked jets carry more components between Germany, France, Spain and the U.K.

With facilities scattered around Europe, the Belugas are a vital tool in piecing together the new A350, Airbus’s most advanced jet and its attempt to win a larger slice from Boeing Co. in the wide-body market. Since the first Beluga entered service two decades ago, production has quadrupled to 600 planes a year. The new A350 wide-body jet will further lift output, forcing to Airbus to push its Belugas to new limits.

“We are entering into the most critical phase of the A350 program,” Tom Enders, the chief executive officer of Airbus parent European Aeronautics, Defence & Space Co., said yesterday. “Ramp-up is underway, and we need to deliver on our commitments to our customers and our first customers particularly for the 350 next year.”

The Belugas shuttle between sites such as Broughton, Wales, to pick up the wings, and Getafe, Spain, or Hamburg in Germany for tail parts to bring them back to the final assembly line in Toulouse for construction.

Shuttle Service

The twin-engine transport plays a central role in the multi-national layout of the planemaker, which since is creation as a risk-sharing partnership in 1970 has spread production around factories across France, Germany, Spain and the U.K.

The transports themselves are ungainly-looking creatures with an extended, low-slung nose housing the cockpit that extends into a bulging back of the plane designed and built by Airbus in the early 1990s. The Belugas are based on Airbus’s A300-600, a commercial wide-body model no longer in production.

Access to the cargo area is provided by a front hatch. The plane’s main deck cargo volume is greater than that of the Antonov AN-124, though still smaller than the largest Antonov, the An-225. Cargo weight capacity of 47 metric tons is only about a third of that on either Antonovs, because the plane is designed for volume, not weight, said Stephane Gosselin, who runs the Beluga fleet.

Super Guppy

The Belugas replaced a fleet of four so-called Super Guppies that resembled a cross between an aircraft and a blimp and were based on Boeing Co. Stratocruisers from the 1940s. Despite higher demand, Airbus wouldn’t be able to make additional transporters because the civil airframe on which the aircraft is based is no longer in production.

The long-range, wide-body A350 represents Airbus’s bid to wrest leadership from Boeing in the category of large, twin-aisled planes. Its U.S. rival has dominated with its 777 for a decade, and the A350 is Airbus’s first new model to challenge that plane. The A350 first flew in June and is targeted for entry into commercial service by late 2014.

Every A350 produced will required more than 45 hours of ferry flights, compared with about eight flight hours for a single-aisle plane, said Gosselin. That’s because sections such as wings are four times more voluminous than for Airbus’s A320 series, requiring more trips to get parts to Toulouse.

More Flights

Under the so-called Fly 10,000 program, Airbus will crank up the use of Belugas to 18 hours a day, six days a week, from an average of 12 hours daily on five days by 2017. Achieving that target requires more than training additional pilots to add flight hours. The company is also working to improve the infrastructure where the transport hooks up with production facilities, to speed up the transfer of parts, Gosselin said.

To accelerate loading of parts onto the plane, Airbus will start constructing of additional facilities at its main stations in Bremen and Hamburg in Germany, Saint Nazaire in France, Broughton in Wales, and Getafe in Spain. The investment is needed because the Belugas often have to perform loading operations outside the hangars and the facilities will protect it from adverse weather that could slow progress.

With its pan-European manufacturing approach, Airbus has become accustomed to a complicated web of transport for its components over the years. Given that the parts of the A380 double-decker flagship are too large for the Beluga, Airbus relies on barge and truck convoys guided by satellite to get the pieces to Toulouse for assembly.

Complex Timing

Timing the Beluga’s schedules is complex because the plane doesn’t simply fly from Toulouse to a production center and fetches pieces. Instead, when Airbus flies a plane part, it also takes on board the jig, or custom-made tools, that secures the section while work is being performed, that then needs to return to the production plant. Getting the jigs back to their original location requires special planning, Gosselin said.

The Beluga’s volume makes it ideal for carrying large and lightweight items. When the Louvre Museum in Paris wanted to transport Eugene Delacroix’s 12-foot-high Liberty Leading the People painting to Tokyo, it proved too large to get into a Boeing 747 freighter and instead traveled in a Beluga. The plane has been on promotional tours as far as Australia, and its unusual shape make it a crowd magnet, Gosselin said.

“Wherever we go -- and we tend to fly in some pretty remote locations -- when the Beluga lands there are always photographers and families waiting to watch,” Gosselin says. “It’s surprising, but after more than 15 years, you still have this interest.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.