When you look at this plane, you wonder how it is physically possible that such an oversized aircraft of such bizarre proportions could get airborne, but that’s largely what makes this aircraft so spectacular. The Airbus A300-600ST, also known as the ‘Beluga’, was not the first airborne transport designed to carry other aircraft, but it’s by far the most recognisable.
The A300-600ST (Super-Transporter) spawned from a desire by European multinational aircraft manufacturer, Airbus, to quickly and efficiently transport parts and components from its many factories to the final assembly line without the need for long-distance shipping by either sea or land.
Airbus was formed by the amalgamation of multiple European aircraft builders, all of which had factories spread across the map in Germany, France, Spain and Great Britain. As part of this amalgamation, individual parts were created and processed by these nations under contract, and thus had to be transported to the final assembly line at what was originally Toulouse in France. When production of the company’s first model, the A300, commenced in 1970 at Toulouse, parts were transported by either lorries or by barge, which was both slow and cumbersome. This was later exacerbated during the advanced stages of the A300 production, especially following the widespread enthusiasm which followed its announcement. With large numbers of orders now rolling in, Airbus struggled to meet demand under its existing system, and thus had to formulate a different plan.
From 1972, it was decided that the only way to quickly and efficiently transport parts and major components to the Toulouse factory was to by air, thus the Super-Transporter concept was born.
The first iterations of Airbus’ Super-Transport aircraft came in the form of former Boeing 377 Stratocruisers of 1947 which had been converted in 1965 by Aero Spacelines. The design itself was based on the earlier Boeing C-97 Stratofreighter of 1944, which itself was based on the B-29 Superfortress of 1942. Named the “Super Guppy”, these aircraft featured a ballooned fuselage which could carry a load of 24,500kg at speeds of up to 300mph. The Guppy aircraft originally saw work as part of the NASA space programme, largely being used for space module recovery or transporting the module to the launch site.
Airbus took on two of these aircraft initially to help transport engines and other airplane parts to the Toulouse plant. This was followed in 1982 and 1983 by the conversion of two redundant UTA Boeing 377’s into Super Guppies, bringing the Airbus fleet to four. While the Super Guppy was a fascinating specimen which appeared to defy the laws of physics, its long outdated design and comparatively slow speeds meant that, by the 1990’s, it was no longer up to the challenge, especially with the company’s major expansion following the launch of the Airbus A320 family.
Something had to be done, but Airbus were not unaware of this eventuality. Throughout the 1980’s, the company had considered various replacements for the Super Guppy, including a fleet of transporter planes based off the design principles of the upcoming Airbus A340 quad-jet, the largest aircraft Airbus intended to produce at the time. Other considerations included the purchase and possible conversion of other company’s aircraft, including the Boeing 747, the C-5 Galaxy, the Antonov An-225 and the Ilyushin Il-86. In an unusually generous offer, especially considering Airbus was their biggest rival, Boeing proposed the conversion of Boeing 767’s into Super-Transporters, specially built for Airbus.
Eventually, Airbus settled on the creation of an entirely new design based off of the Airbus A300-600ER. Starting in 1991, Aérospatiale and DASA, two of the major Airbus partners, formed a 50/50 joint venture company, Super Airbus Transport International (SATIC), based in Toulouse, France, to develop a new-build replacement for the Super Guppy fleet.
The design was based, for the most part, off the underpinnings of the regular A300, including a shared wing, engine and landing gear design, as well as sharing the lower fuselage. The upper part of the fuselage, however, was expanded dramatically to an enormous 25ft diameter structure, which essentially doubled the amount of payload which could be carried within the aircraft when compared to the Super Guppies. Engines were uprated from those used on the regular A300, these consisting of General Electric CF6-80C2 turbofan powerplant. The performance of the A300-600ST is not too different to that of the regular A300, with a maximum permissible speed of 473 knots and a range of 2,800km.
The vertical stabiliser is taken from the Airbus A340, while the horizontal stabilisers are complimented with auxiliary fins to maintain directional stability. One of the more interesting features is the step-down cockpit, which was done to provide easier access to the cargo area and to remove the need for disabling electrical, hydraulic and flight control connections by having the cockpit form part of the door (as it did on the Super Guppy). The door itself consisted of a large, upward-swinging hinged door, with loading and unloading performed by way of an internal conveyor system to allow easy movement of cargo. The cockpit of the Beluga is pressurised but the cargo deck is not, making it inaccessible during flight and unsuitable for cargoes that require a pressurised environment, such as live animals. However, the cargo deck is fitted with a heating module to keep the cargo within an appropriate temperature range.
Construction of the first ST, now nicknamed the “Beluga” due to its external appearance resembling a Beluga Whale, began in September 1992, with its maiden flight taking place exactly two years later. Following 335 hours of extensive aerial testing, the European Aviation Safety Agency awarded the Beluga its airworthiness certificate in October 1995. The aircraft was subsequently pressed into service in January 1996, with approval being made for another 4 units of the type to be built and delivered. The huge success of the Beluga aircraft in providing efficient and time saving transfer of parts and components across Europe allowed Airbus to finally retire the Super Guppies in October 1997.
Beluga aircraft operate between a variety of locations where Airbus components are assembled, including Chester (where engines built by the nearby Rolls Royce factory are assembled), Hamburg (final assembly line for the Airbus A320 family), Seville (final assembly line for the military Airbus A400M) and Toulouse (home base and final assembly line for all other Airbus commercial models). Perhaps the most spectacular load carried by the Beluga on a regular basis are fuselage sections for Airbus A320 aircraft, which are transported to Hamburg from their initial construction plant in Toulouse for final assembly in Germany. As of 2012, 5,000 flights were operated per year by the Beluga aircraft on behalf of Airbus, though this has doubled as demand for these aircraft have increased.
Today, the A300-600ST remains a vital part of Airbus’ operations, being able to transfer parts, components, even complete sections of pretty much all their models. The only sections of aircraft which cannot be transported by the A300 are those which form the Airbus A380, which instead have to be transferred by barge and road.
But the Beluga’s don’t just work for Airbus, they can also be hired out to help transport major infrastructure or other weighty payloads which need to be delivered quickly and efficiently. These have included other aircraft, tanks, relief supplies, satellites and space station modules. The A300-600ST set a world record in June 1997 by flying a chemical tank for a merchant vessel from Clermont-Ferrand to Le Havre, France. In February 2003, a single Beluga performed the farthest distance charter flight ever, having flown for 25 hours (not including refuelling stops) to transport two complete NHI NH90 helicopters along with a single Eurocopter Tiger attack helicopter from Marseille, France to Melbourne, Australia, for the Avalon Airshow. The Beluga has also seen work on humanitarian missions, including the delivery of relief supplies following the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami in Indonesia and Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana in 2005.
However, the A300-600ST may soon be seeing itself replaced, as plans are in progress to create a new version of the Beluga. Considerations to create modified versions of the Beluga date back to its early days, including large-scale production of the craft based on the principles of the Airbus A340 during the late 1990’s. Only recently have plans resurfaced for a replacement model, this time being based on the underpinnings of the Airbus A330-200. This replacement, the Airbus Beluga XL, intends to see 5 of these aircraft introduced from 2019, replacing the last of the original Beluga’s by 2025.
Nevertheless, before these replacements can one day strip the A300-600ST of its prestige job position, we can still watch in amazement as this very unusual aircraft continues to ply its trade across the skies of Europe. The Beluga is truly unique, an aircraft that boggles the mind as to how it even becomes airborne, but one whose mystifying aerial abilities cannot be denied. It’s a fantastic plane that I hope sees work even after Airbus retires it, and will go down in the annuls of aviation history as a classic.