Stelia Aerospace, a subsidiary of Airbus, last week delivered the first upper fuselage section for the developmental Airbus BelugaXL, the planned successor to the Beluga-600XT. Based on the A300-600 platform, the Beluga 600XT is the swollen transport freighter Airbus developed for carrying oversize airframe components, such as fuselage sections and wings, among the different factories of Airbus.
This new upper fuselage section from Stelia measures 26.25 feet (eight meters) long by 29.5 feet (9 m) wide and 26.25 feet (8 m) high, and weighs 2.1 metric tons. Stelia’s Rochefort plant in western France, which built the component, also carries responsibility for the huge cargo door weighing 6,600 pounds (3 metric tons). One of the Tier-1 suppliers of the program, Stelia Aerospace also produces the nose section (including the cockpit). German company Deharde Aerospace makes the central fuselage sections, and Spain’s Aeronova produces the aft sections.
Stelia has recruited 510 employees to develop and industrialize the program, starting in early 2015. "We are very satisfied with how the program has developed, since we delivered the first item on time," explained Stelia Aerospace CEO Cédric Gautier. The supplier delivered the first nose section last April. Stelia's Rochefort factory also makes the ramp door of the Airbus A400M military transport, giving it solid experience with this kind of production.
"The [new] BelugaXL is of paramount importance to the ramp-up of our commercial aircraft," explained Bertrand Georges, Airbus’s director of the BelugaXL program. The current XT fleet is flying more and more, increasing its airborne hours from 4,000 per year in 2012 to more than 8,000 hours per year. Georges said he expects the fleet to pass the 10,000-hour-per-year milestone by 2019.
Based on an A330-200F airframe, the planned fleet of five BelugaXLs will provide 30 percent more transport capacity than the Beluga-600XTs. For example, each one can carry a complete set of A350XWB wings, compared with just one wing for the 600XT. Similarly, it can carry more parts of the A320. In total, the new Beluga can carry 52 tons of payload over a distance of 2,200 nautical miles nonstop.
Final assembly of the first airframe started in January at the A380 factory in Toulouse. Airbus expects First flight to occur in mid-2018. Plans call for the first two aircraft to participate in the flight test program, scheduled for just under 1,000 hours. It expects the first airplane to enter service in mid-2019, when it starts transporting wings between Broughton, UK, Bremen, Germany, and Toulouse, France. After the first airplanes enter service, a new BelugaXL come on line every year until 2022.
The five existing Beluga-600XTs, which will reach mid-life in 2018/19, will gradually retire from service but will continue to fly alongside the XLs. Their future remains unclear, but Airbus is studying possibilities for service with operators interested in "oversize" transport, it said. "But at least one of the Beluga-600XTs will go to the Aeroscopia museum in Blagnac," said Georges.