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An Airbus A330-700 BelugaXL freighter. (Photo: Julien.jeany [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)])

The Whales in the Sky

Today, when you board a newly-built commercial aircraft like the A350 or B787, you are stepping onto an unprecedented global feat of engineering. There aren’t many other endeavors on such a grand scale and scope that draws upon the world’s engineers and manufacturers like a commercial aircraft does. 

Building a large commercial passenger aircraft is a global enterprise. An overwhelming number of the Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner main sections are built outside of the U.S. The fuselage is built in Japan and Italy. The wings also come from Japan. Several major components like the engines, doors and landing gear come from France, the U.K., South Korea, Canada and Sweden. Airbus similarly draws upon its partners and facilities in Spain, Germany, France, the U.K. and Canada to build its fleet of aircraft.

The globalization of aircraft manufacturing is good for economies and politics but exponentially increases the difficult logistics of moving large aircraft pieces to final assembly sites.

Enter the flying whales. 

In order to meet production timelines and schedules, Airbus and Boeing have turned to transporting their major aircraft pieces by air. Both manufacturers maintain tight timelines and production schedules necessitating a fast and reliable transport system for their major assemblies. Delays in transport can result in cascading delivery delays to customers.

Dreamlifter and 787 Body Sections arrive in Everett, Wash. (Photo: Boeing)

Boeing uses a heavily modified B747, introduced as the Dreamlifter in 2007. The model is affectionately called the “whale” in the industry. Airbus utilizes modified A300s and A330s, referred to as “Belugas,” to transport their large aircraft components.

These nicknames were not bestowed by accident. The B747, with its humpback appearance before and after modification, and the Beluga, with its uncanny resemblance to its namesake, seem to fit their designations perfectly.

On outward appearance, one might assume Boeing’s Dreamlifter is the larger of the two models, and they’d be right. The B747 is 8 meters longer, 2.5 meters taller and 4 meters wider than the Beluga.

But the Beluga has a larger cargo capacity through some clever engineering retrofits, making the most use of available fuselage capacity. The flight deck was lowered and the tail section modified to increase the volume of the cargo hold. The Beluga’s cargo size is 2209 cubic meters while the Dreamlifter’s cargo size is 1841 cubic meters.

Both aircraft have incredible payload capacity. The Dreamlifter can carry 125 tons of cargo where the Beluga XL is capable of carrying 51 tons.

But the Dreamlifter has one important and crucial advantage: it has double the range of the Beluga, a much-needed attribute given Boeing’s partnerships with its transoceanic manufacturers.

Airbus plans to replace its older, smaller Belugas with the new Beluga XL by year’s, end although it is unclear if the pandemic will impact the timeline.


  • Rick Shideler

    Rick is a retired airline maintenance professional with over 40 years experience in commercial, corporate and military aviation sectors. Rick holds an FAA Airframe & Powerplant (A&P) and a FCC General RadioTelephone Licenses. Rick is a veteran of the United States Air Force and has served in multiple leadership positions including Director of Maintenance for a large corporate aviation firm, airline Director of Engineering and has chaired multiple aviation maintenance safety and reliability industry committees. Rick took his first airplane ride at six months old and became an airline geek shortly thereafter.

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