Ten years after launching the programme, Airbus has brought its high-capacity BelugaXL fleet up to its full capacity of six aircraft following the introduction of the initial airframe, which had been serving as a testbed.

Airbus formally commenced work on the A330-700L – the formal designation for the BelugaXL – in 2014, and MSN1824 became the first modified airframe.

The Rolls-Royce Trent 700-powered twinjet carried out its maiden flight in July 2018.

But Airbus had stated at the time that the first BelugaXL to enter service with its internal logistics operation Airbus Transport International would be the second modified aircraft, MSN1853.

Six BelugaXLs have been built to replace the five A300-600ST Belugas previously used for shipping aerostructures between the Airbus plants. The five A300-600STs are being transferred to a new outsize commercial cargo operation, Airbus Beluga Transport.

BelugaXL MSN1824 take-off-c-Airbus

Source: Airbus

Having served as a testbed, the initial BelugaXL airframe, MSN1824, has been delivered in its full livery

Airbus Transport International officially took delivery of MSN1824 in June this year. “Final handover [of the testbed] marks the closure of the BelugaXL programme,” says the airframer.

The BelugaXL’s greater capacity enables it to carry two A350 wings, and will enable ramp-up of A350 production. Airbus expects the fleet to be flying 9,500h annually by 2027, compared with 6,500h this year.

“Our instructions were to halve the [XL’s] original development cost, and deliver the first aircraft – certified as a normal A330 – within five years,” says programme head Bertrand George.

“Fortunately we had carte blanche to explore novel approaches to make it happen. Those experiences will be beneficial to future programmes in all of Airbus’s businesses.”

The aircraft, which is based on the A330-200, has a 51t payload capability and 2,200nm range.

BelugaXL MSN1824-c-Airbus

Source: Airbus

Aircraft ‘1’ will join five other BelugaXLs in the internal logistics fleet

MSN1824 remained as a testbed until last year, carrying out more than 800h of flight tests to check its response to various operating conditions.

It has since been refurbished, and carries the number ‘1’ on its fuselage and vertical stabilisers, in line with the numbers ‘2’ to ‘6’ which feature on the rest of the fleet.

While it has not committed to further BelugaXLs, Airbus is placing the jigs and manufacturing tooling into storage in case the need emerges for additional aircraft.

Airbus intends the BelugaXL fleet, which will have a 30-year lifespan, to be operating entirely on sustainable aviation fuel by the end of the decade.