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Meet the air freighter that looks like a whale

Meet the air freighter that looks like a whale
From BBC - April 6, 2018

Passenger aircraft are built in sections around the world then assembled in various locations, so how do you transport huge parts like wings and fuselages? Meet the super-transporters - giant planes for giant jobs.

The aircraft being assembled in Hangar L34 at Airbus's Toulouse headquarters is, to put it mildly, an unusual beast.

Where most aircraft have slim, elegant fuselages this one is swollen and bloated, ending in a vast curved dome above the cockpit.

Its wings, despite a span of more than 60m (197ft), seem remarkably short and stubby next to that enormous body.

Overall, it bears a striking resemblance to a whale - and indeed it is named after one. This is the Airbus Beluga XL, a brand new breed of super-transporter.

The company needs aircraft like this to transport major components, such as wings and sections of fuselage, from the factories where they are built to final assembly lines in Germany, France and China.

Airbus has highly specialised production centres across Europe, a legacy of the time when it was a consortium of national aerospace businesses.To allow its supply chain to work effectively, it needs to be able to carry large cargoes from one site to another with minimal delay.

But why not simply build everything in one place to do away with the need for giant transporters?

"Airbus pioneered the system of having centres of excellence around Europe - now around the world," says Prof Iain Gray, director of aerospace at Cranfield University.

"You have got skilled labour, shared investment, and the ability to draw in local expertise - the benefits of a distributed model are well proven."

Indeed, rival aircraft maker Boeing moved from a more centralised system to Airbus's distributed model, says Prof Gray.

Hence the need for super-transporters.

Back in the 1970s, that job was done by variants of Super Guppy, a conversion of Boeing's turbo-prop powered C-97 Stratofreighter - itself a development of the Second World War B-29 bomber.

It was replaced in 1995 by a first-generation Beluga, the ST, a twin-engine jet built by Airbus itself. Much bigger than the Super Guppy, it could also be loaded and unloaded far more quickly.

Airbus currently has five Beluga STs in service, flying for thousands of hours each year and often making multiple journeys each day.

But as the aerospace giant itself has grown, so have its needs.

One of the main jobs of the Beluga is to fly wings for the new A350 from Broughton in North Wales, where they are manufactured, to Airbus's headquarters in Toulouse, where the aircraft are assembled.

"Airbus's production volumes are massively increasing," says Prof Gray, so a longer, wider, taller transport aircraft helps speed up production.

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