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Airbus’ Super Transporter

 

A300-600ST BELUGA
Following the formation of Airbus Industrie in 1970 by the major French, German, British and Spanish aerospace companies; it immediately faced a difficult decision: how to transport large aircraft components built at the consortium’s manufacturing centres across Europe to its final production line in Toulouse, France and later to Hamburg, Germany. Early A300 components were transported by road; however, as production was ramped up this quickly became impractical and it had to look for an alternative. Airbus decided that flying parts around its manufacturing and production sites would be the ideal method, and began looking for suitable transport aircraft. From 1972 onwards, it started operating a fleet of four modified Boeing C-97J Stratofreighters, the military version of the 377 Stratocruiser. Known as Super Guppies, these 1940s-era piston-props were converted by US aircraft manufacturer, Aero Spacelines, and featured custom-built fuselages and turbine engines.

However, as the consortium continued to grow rapidly, adding more types to its portfolio, it had a requirement for greater capacity and with its fleet of Super Guppies becoming increasingly unsatisfactory due to their age and operating costs; it once again started looking for an alternative transporter. In 1991 Aérospatiale and Deutsche Aerospace Airbus (DASA) formed a subsidiary called Special Aircraft Transport International Company (SATIC) to develop a replacement based around the wide-body, twin-engined A300, to be designated the A300-600ST (Super Transporter). The design they came up with retained the wings, engine, landing gear and the lower half of the fuselage, while an enormous horseshoe-shaped structure, measuring 25ft (7.7m) in diameter, was added to accommodate the parts that it would be transporting.

The first A350 XWB mid-fuselage section is carefully loaded in to one of Airbus' A300-600ST Belugas. It appears to be a very tight fit! (Airbus)

The first A350 XWB mid-fuselage section is carefully loaded in to one of Airbus’ A300-600ST Belugas. It appears to be a very tight fit! (Airbus)

Airbus A300-600ST’s Vital Statistics
Length: 184ft 3in (56.15m)
Height: 56ft 7in (17.24m)
Wingspan: 147ft 2in (44.84m)
Freight compartment: 24ft (7.4m) diameter by 124ft (37.7m) long
Payload: 47 tonnes
Maximum take-off weight: 155 tonnes

The cockpit was lowered to below the cargo floor level to so that components can be loaded straight in without having to disconnect electrical, hydraulic and flight control connections as had been the case with the Super Guppy, and this saved time and lengthy recalibrations before each flight. A large upward-hinging door above the cabin floor was built by Sogerma and the upper fuselage structure was built by Socata, Hurel-Dubois and CASA. Elbe Flugzeugwerke was responsible for the redesigned, enlarged and strengthened three-finned tail unit.

The first A350 XWB front fuselage loaded into the Beluga's vast cargo hold ready for transportation to the final assembly line in Toulouse. (Airbus)

The first A350 XWB front fuselage loaded into the Beluga’s vast cargo hold ready for transportation to the final assembly line in Toulouse. (Airbus)

Final assembly and flight test was assigned to Latécoère and work on the first example started in September 1992. The first A300-600ST made its maiden flight two years later on September 13, 1994. After completing 335 hours of test flying it was awarded its restricted type certification 13 months later and entered service shortly afterwards. A further four Super Transporters were constructed, at a rate of roughly one per year (see table).

Airbus A300B4-608ST Fleet
F-GSTA / 1 655 Oct 1995
F-GSTB / 2 751 Apr 1996
F-GSTC / 3 765 May 1997
F-GSTD / 4 776 Dec 1998
F-GSTF / 5 796 Jan 2001

Its unique appearance, reminiscent of a Beluga whale, led Airbus to adopt the name officially for the type. In 1996 the European manufacturer created another subsidiary, Airbus Transport International (ATI) to offer the unique jet for third party charter work and since then they have been used to carry a variety of special loads, including space station components, industrial machinery and even delicate artworks. In 1999 a Beluga carried the large 9.81ft (2.99m) high by 20.74ft (3.62m) painting ‘Liberty Leading the People’ by Eugéne Delacroix from Paris to Tokyo for an exhibition; the painting and its protective box were too big for a 747 Freighter.

Beluga, F-GSTC / 3 (c/n 765) pictured taxiing at Toulouse is wearing new titles ‘Think Mobility’ and ‘Join Us’, promoting the current Airbus recruitment campaign. (Yvan Panas)

Beluga, F-GSTC / 3 (c/n 765) pictured taxiing at Toulouse is wearing new titles ‘Think Mobility’ and ‘Join Us’, promoting the current Airbus recruitment campaign. (Yvan Panas)

With the continuing success and expansion of Airbus, and new types being launched as well as additional production facilities being established around the world, its Beluga fleet is becoming increasingly stretched. Although no official announcement of a next-generation Super Transporter has been made, the company will soon need to supplement its current Belugas and in the long-term replace them. Airbus is understood to be looking at its future transport options, with aviation analysts believing its next platform will be based on the A330 model. Building a larger Super Transporter will give Airbus even more possibilities when deciding on its next generation of commercial aircraft.

Martyn Cartledge visits Broughton, Flintshire to experience a wing delivery flight onboard the outsized freighterl. For the full story see the October 2013 issue of Airliner World.

Posted in Features

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