Living in Seattle, I get to see the Boeing Dreamlifter quite often. It is an odd-looking plane with an attitude that I just love. I had never been able to see its counterpart, the Airbus Beluga, and when I heard it was going to be attending Hamburg Airport Days, I was excited to get my first look.
When entering the event, I looked around and couldn’t find it, but I was assured that the plane was there — somewhere. I figured that it is not exactly the type of aircraft that can easily hide.
Sure enough, as I turned a corner… there it was. One big, bold, and beautiful plane. Not like supermodel beautiful, but a sort of beauty that… well, only an AvGeek could love.
As I walked around and took photos, I was asked by my Lufthansa hosts if I had any questions. “Yes, can I tour the inside?” Being the gracious folks that they were, they said that they would see what they could do. Knowing that it might be challenging to find an Airbus representative and arrange a media tour at the last minute, I kept my expectations in check. Of course I was hoping for the best.
Shortly after, I was told that we could tour the plane, but it had to be quick (like five minutes-quick). I was asked if I was still interested, all I could do was grow a big grin and say, “heck yes, let’s do it!”
The plane is one that you might call “unique.” It looks like a sort of Airbus-snake, which is in the process of digesting a smaller, Airbus A320. However, the shape is mission-driven to carry around other airplane parts (but it doesn’t digest them).
The concept for the Beluga started with the initial creation of Airbus. Early in the company’s existence, they realized that they needed to effectively move aircraft parts around Europe. At first, four Boeing Stratocruisers were used and they were affectionately given the nickname “Super Guppies.” The aircraft served Airbus well, but in the early 90s, plans for their replacement went into full swing.
It was decided to build five new planes based off of the Airbus A300-600. The vast majority of the Beluga is stock A300. Besides the huge, bulbous cargo addition, the other main difference is that the flight deck was lowered to allow front access to the cargo area, without having to disconnect electrical and hydraulic lines.
Although it mostly flies Airbus parts, it can also be chartered. The cargo volume that it can haul is more than the Antonov An-124, but due to the two engines, it is weight-limited to about 52 tons (the AN-124 can do about 135 tons).
Airbus has already started the process of replacing the Beluga; that project is currently dubbed the “Beluga XL” (I hope that they come up with a better name). The new Beluga, to be based on the A330-200F, will primarily be used to transport A350 parts and, in time, replace the older Beluga altogether.
Yes, the past and future of the Beluga has always interested me, but while making my way to Beluga number one, in Hamburg, I was very much concentrating on the present. By the time our small group made it back to the Beluga, the main cargo door was open. If you think the plane is impressive with the door closed, it is even more so with the door open.
At first, it wasn’t obvious how we were going to board the plane. Then I noticed the small stairs sticking down from the bottom of the plane… awesome. I made my way up into a lower, smaller cargo area. I was mindful of our short amount of time and for sure wanted to get up to the main cargo deck, but I first kindly asked the pilot (who was speaking French) if I could view the flight deck and take photos. He was more than happy to oblige and as I opened the door, he reminded me to mind my step. Oh right, it was lower than a standard A300.
I was told that, other than it being lower, there is very little difference between a standard Airbus A300-600 flight deck and the Beluga’s. When I asked the pilot if the plane handled a bit differently, he laughed and said, “yes just a little.” That is expected with such modifications.
BONUS: Antonov AN-225 Photo Tour
A ladder was required to make my way to the upper cargo hold — I was game. When getting to the top, I wasn’t sure what to look at first. Either the massive door that was opened to the crowd or the A320 fuselage that was in the back of the hold.
How do you make an A320 look small? Put it into a Beluga!
I ended up timing things perfectly. As I was just finishing my photos from the rear of the cargo hold, we were told that we needed to wrap up and make our way to the next thing. Now… there aren’t too many things that can pull a few AvGeeks away from checking out a Airbus Beluga. But we had a schedule to keep for our Junkers Ju-52 flight and we weren’t going to miss it!