Max Kingsley-Jones/LONDON

On 24 October 1997, Airbus Industrie retired the last Boeing Super Guppy from service, bringing to an end some 26 years of the outsized cargo turboprop's operations ferrying subassemblies between the consortium's European plants. At its peak, the fleet of converted Boeing 377s/C-97s totalled four aircraft, but in January 1996, replacement of the ageing freighters began with the introduction of a faster, larger and more efficient machine, the A300-600-based Beluga.

Originally conceived for the transportation of US space programme components, the Super Guppies were created through the cannibalisation of ancient Boeing Stratocruisers/Stratofighters. Airbus acquired its first two airframes in the early 1970s, and later commissioned the "creation" of two more aircraft which entered service during the 1980s. By the end of that decade, with the Airbus production rates gathering considerable pace, it was becoming clear that a modern replacement was needed.

Airbus selected a design based on the General Electric CF6-80C2-powered A300-600 airframe, which is officially designated the A300-600ST (Super Transporter). The programme was launched in August 1991, and is managed by a Toulouse based 50/50 joint venture set up by Aerospatiale and Daimler-Benz Aerospace - Super Airbus Transport International (SATIC). Dubbed the Beluga because of its whale-like appearance, Airbus now has three aircraft flying. A fourth is to enter service in June. An option on a fifth Beluga has been firmed up for delivery in 2001 to cope with future capacity needs and to be used as a back-up when needed.



The Beluga is equipped with a bulbous 7m (internal) diameter upper deck cargo compartment, a relocated flightdeck below the main deck, and an upward opening cargo door. The aircraft also features an A340 tailfin and large tailplane endplates to provide improved stability. The modification work is carried out at Toulouse with components supplied from the Airbus assembly line. Each airframe takes around three years to be created.

During the Super Guppy era, operations were focused purely on the subassembly ferry work, but in parallel with the introduction of the more productive Beluga, a new division was set up to operate the aircraft - Airbus Transport International (ATI). As well as flying the aircraft on the regular subassembly delivery flights, the new division was also tasked with generating revenue from commercial cargo charters. ATI was awarded its air operator's certificate from the French civil aviation authority in November 1996, and flew its first third party contract flight shortly afterwards. The target for the new division is to generate up to $15 million-worth of revenue each year using spare capacity on the Beluga fleet.

Louis Germain, vice-president of Airbus' transport directorate, was appointed as ATI's chairman, while Arnaud Martin is director of business development. ATI leases the Belugas to Airbus for the subassembly transport duties, while its personnel, maintenance, technical and administrative support, is subcontracted to Airbus. Some 40-45 flight operations and technical staff are seconded to the division.

Germain says that between 1995, when the Beluga was certificated, and 2000, the volume of parts carried for Airbus Industrie will have tripled. In 1997 alone, the Beluga fleet accumulated over 2,500 flight hours in more than 1,400 flights. "Some 350 fuselage sections were transported by Beluga in 1997, and this will double to 700 in 2001," says Germain.

The jet-powered Guppy replacement is much faster than its predecessor, with a Mach 0.70/420kt (780km/h) cruising speed at 35,000ft (10,700m), compared to Mach 0.29/180kt at 21,000ft for the Guppy. Martin says that the Beluga's lowered flightdeck enables roll-on/roll-off loadings of cargo payloads which has halved loading time to around 45min. The Super Guppy's cargo door was in fact the entire forward fuselage, including the cockpit, which was hinged on the left side, and swung open to facilitate loading. The entire load/de-load process took around 1h 30min, with flight controls and electrical and hydraulic circuitry having to be disconnected and reconnected. Another advantage of the new door design is that the Beluga can be loaded/unloaded in winds of up to 40kt.

At some 1,400m³ (49,500ft³), the Beluga's cargo volume is some 30% greater than that of the Super Guppy and the Antonov An-124. Payload capability is also more than doubled, from 22.7t to 47t. "The combination of these factors means that one Beluga is doing the same job as 2.3 Guppies," says Martin. "We are now getting around 1,200 flight hours annually from each Beluga, but we are targeting 1,500h by mid-1999," he says.



Initially, the third party cargo business is using the gaps in between the Beluga fleet's commitments to the Airbus production schedule, says Martin. Only 130h were available for commercial flights in 1997 because of the workload "-so eight in every 10 requests had to be turned down", says Martin. The addition of the fourth aircraft in June should boost capacity to around 600h this year, and 1,000h in 1999, adds Martin.

The increasing availability means that ATI is now actively going out in search of business, says Martin, explaining that when the fifth aircraft is introduced, ATI will be able effectively to dedicate one Beluga to third party work. ATI's target is to generate some $15 million in gross revenue each year. Potential commercial-cargo applications include space products (satellites and rockets), aircraft, simulators, engines, yachts and racing cars.

ATI has been contracted to ferry 3,500kg aluminum liquid oxygen tanks (4m high x 6m wide x 9m long) for NASA's X-33 Venture Star launch vehicle between New Orleans, Mississippi and Palmdale, California.ÊThe first tank delivery flight was made in February and up to four more are planned soon. Martin says that the success of this contract has resulted in approaches from all the manufacturers of space hardware in the USA, "including Boeing".

The Beluga set a new world record in June 1997 for the most voluminous payload carried by air when a chemical tank for a merchant ship was flown from Clermont-Ferrand to Le Havre in France. Six tanks, each measuring 6.5m in diameter, 17.6m in length and weighing 39t, have already been ferried, and 12 more flights are planned through to mid-1999.

The Beluga's creator, SATIC, is looking at potential new outsized cargo variants of Airbus aircraft. Included in these studies is a Beluga derivative of the four engined, long range A340 which could be an option for delivering A3XX subassemblies to the final assembly line.

In late 1997, SATIC's then chairman Udo Dräger revealed that the company was preparing several potential freighter projects based primarily around the A330/A340 airframe. Dräger, who retired this year and was replaced by Heinz-Holger Hahn, had said that in principle "-it is possible to upgrade the A340 in a similar way to the [A300] Beluga, but it would be larger and could carry more components".

Brian Smith, SATIC director responsible for production and commercial, says that the technology exists to adopt the Beluga concept to any of the Airbus airframes. "We have studied various diameter upper decks combined with various airframe chassis, be it with two or four engines under the wings," he says.

Although Airbus has developed a side-cargo door for its widebodied A300/A310 family, it is yet to apply the concept to the A330/A340. SATIC is studying such a derivative of the newer models, and is also proposing a version equipped with a Beluga-type upward hinging door and lowered fuselage, but standard upper deck.



The most ambitious of the proposals envisages a Beluga version of the new Rolls-Royce Trent 500-powered A340-600. The cargo compartment's diameter would have to be increased to around 10m to enable it to carry the larger A3XX subassemblies, such as fuselage sections.

ATI's Martin says that Airbus is yet to finalise the production method for the A3XX, with air and sea transportation being considered. "If the air option is selected, then we will probably need to order one or two more A300 Belugas," he says.

Smith points out that SATIChas no marketing responsibility. "Our function is to develop, build and certificate the aircraft, for our only customer - Airbus," he says. Smith sees a niche for the production of Belugas for external markets, and says that Airbus is marketing the concept on various airframes to cargo carriers such as FedEx. While a price is not available, Smith suggests that an A300-based Beluga would cost "about half" that of a Boeing MD-17, which is being offered for around $175 million a unit.

"I don't think there is a market [outside Airbus] today. It will three to four years for us to prove the concept and provide stability in the market, before other carriers will be interested in the aircraft themselves," says Martin.

He concedes that ATI has been approached about the lease of a Beluga on a long term basis, mainly by military operators.

Late last year Airbus demonstrated an A300 Beluga at Boeing Field, Seattle, during a cargo industry symposium. Dräger saw the Beluga as an ideal way to speed up Boeing's component transportation, which at the moment relies on road, rail or ship transportation. "For sure, Boeing will think about the air transportation of parts," he said at the time. So far there has been "no reaction" from the US manufacturer about acquiring any Belugas.

With the production cycle of Airbus aircraft beginning with a flight on a Boeing for the first 26 years of the consortium's existence, perhaps it would not be implausible for roles to be reversed in the future.

Source: Flight International