On Thursday, after five years of development, the Airbus Beluga XL, painted with eyes and a smile to match its cetacean namesake, made its maiden flight, taking off from and landing at Toulouse, France, in front of a crowd of 10,000. The craft is expected to enter service next year.
Airbus plans to use the Beluga XL to shuttle airplane parts among its facilities in France and Germany. The XL has roughly 30% more cargo space than existing Beluga planes, and it can carry over 50 tons 2500 miles (4000 km) without refueling. It can carry two wings for the Airbus 350 plane in one trip, while the standard Beluga, which entered service in 1995, can carry only one. The Beluga XL is propelled by two Rolls-Royce Trent 700 Turbofan engines.
The plane is named for its resemblance to a Beluga whale. The front of the fuselage hinges upward to allow front-loading into the cargo space, creating the illusion of a round forehead. This feature was added by slinging the cockpit lower in the plane’s body, so cargo is passed over the pilots’ perch.
The Beluga joins such cargo planes as the Antonov An-225 Mriya was designed by the Soviet space program to carry spacecraft parts, and has a lifting capacity over five times that of the Beluga, but only one was ever built. Other massive planes include NASA’s Super Guppy, which is also used to carry spacecraft parts, and the United States military’s Lockheed C-5 Galaxy.