From beefy machines to behemoth buildings, we’re big fans of big suckers—so much that we once came up with a list of the biggest things in the world and only stopped at 50 because we had to meet a deadline. Our love for the large especially includes prodigious planes, so you can imagine how long we’ve been waiting to see the much-anticipated Airbus BelugaXL—a colossal cargo plane that will carry aircraft parts between Europe and China—officially take to the skies after years of tinkering and testing.
Last week, the BelugaXL—not to be confused with its almost-as-big, but crucially not-as-big predecessor, the regular ol’ Beluga—made its first true operational flight after logging more than 200 flight tests in the years since its development in 2014.
Airbus engineers built the classic Beluga—otherwise known as the A300-600 Super Transporter—to lug large aircraft parts between production facilities. It entered service in 1995, effectively replacing the equally badass Super Guppy, and had a good run until Airbus determined the five original planes in the fleet couldn’t keep up with production growth.
Enter the XL, the outside cargo version of the A300-600. After scouting rival biggies like the Antonov An-124 and Boeing C-17 (Dreamlifter), Airbus engineers ultimately elected to modify their A330-200 Freighter to build a better Beluga.
The XL is powered by twin Rolls-Royce Trent 700 turbofan engines and features a lowered cockpit and colossal cargo bay. At 63 meters long (seven more than the Beluga 1.0) and 8 meters wide (compared to 7), it has the largest cross-section of any cargo aircraft in the world, full stop. Plus, it can carry two A350 XWB wings. The old Beluga, by comparison, could only carry one such wing. Hence what Airbus says is the XL’s additional 30 percent transport capacity.
At nearly 62 feet high, the XL stands a good six feet taller than the original Beluga. With a max payload of 51 tons—the equivalent of seven elephants—a range of 2,200 nautical miles, and a cruising speed of Mach 0.69, the XL is designed to fly more than 4 million miles a year. It will transport gargantuan gear from various production factories in Europe to assembly lines in France, Germany, and China.
Of course, the BelugaXL looks like an actual XL-sized whale; that massive cargo bay tacked on the fuselage gives gives it the distinct shape. But the plane also has eyes and flashes a smile, which you don’t see every transporter sport these days. Twenty-thousand Airbus employees chose the cheeky design, according to CNN.
Bertrand George, head of the Beluga XL program, told CNN that in Toulouse and Hamburg—the sites in France and Germany, respectively, of Airbus’ final assembly lines—the local children recognize the Beluga because of the blubbery build and signature smile. “They love this very special plane,” George said. Kids, so do we.
The plane that made the inaugural XL flight is the first of six that will fly alongside the original Belugas, according to Airbus. The rest of the craft will debut by 2023, while Airbus will eventually phase out and sell the older Belugas.
Sadly, passengers cannot fly in the BelugaXL. But man, just imagine what it would be like if we could.
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