It’s gigantic, it’s shaped like a whale and has wings. It’s the Airbus Beluga, the world’s largest aircraft, and it has just landed in Mumbai. This is the first time the Super Transporter (A300-600ST) has made a pitstop in the city.
The whale-shaped plane is used to carry outsized cargo. Before Mumbai, it landed at Kolkata airport on Sunday, past midnight, for refuelling and rest for the crew. The aircraft is not seen too often in our part of the world but it has reportedly flown to the West Bengal capital before.
We take a look at the aircraft and what makes it a cut about the rest.
The A300-600ST Beluga: A flying giant
A300-600ST Beluga, aka the Beluga ST, is gigantic with a length of 56.15 metres, a height of 17.24 metres and a wingspan of 44.84 metres manufactured by the European multinational aerospace corporation. It can carry 47,000 kg of cargo, the most voluminous hold for any civil or military plane flying today.
A bigger plane needs a bigger engine to operate. Air Bus Beluga is fitted with GE CF6-80C2A8 engines that provide a cruise speed of 0.7 Mach. The maximum operating altitude is 35,000 feet.
The plane costs an estimated $284 million.
The name game
The OG Beluga – the A330-200 airliner – first flew in 1994. It was officially called the Super Transporter. However, soon it earned the moniker Beluga it is white and its front resembles the sociable whales with prominent foreheads.
The A300-600ST, the aircraft which has landed in Mumbai, entered service in January 1996.
The cargo hold of the A300-600ST is 7.08 metres high and 7.04 metres wide with a usable length of 37.70 metres. The position of the main deck allows easy roll-on and roll-off for the transfer of cargo. It comes with a large single-piece main cargo door, which swings forwards and upwards providing ample access to the cargo compartment, according to the website Aerospace Technology.
The plane is big enough to carry two Chinook transport helicopters with blades folded and without having to disassemble and reassemble them.
The cockpit has controls for a transportable heating module, which provides temperature-controlled conditions for sensitive payloads like satellites and even paintings. The Super Transporter has played a crucial role in transporting space station elements, helicopters, works of art, and humanitarian aid.
In 2022, it delivered a new satellite to Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, United States. Its large cargo door and hold make the freighter ideal for ferrying next-generation space equipment. In 2004, it transported the Eutelsat W3A satellite to the Baikonur Cosmodrome launch site in Kazakhstan. It has carried large and delicate space systems like the aluminium fuel tank, 3,500 kg and 9 metres in length, for the NASA X-33 Venture Star spacecraft.
In 1999, the plane ferried the famous painting La Liberte Guidant le peuple (Liberty Leading the People) by 18th-Century French artist Eugène Delacroix from France to Tokyo National Museum.
The largest Beluga
Currently, there are five versions of Beluga aircraft in service, the last one began operations in 2000. There are no plans yet for the production of a sixth Beluga.
The BelugaSTs are progressively being replaced by a fleet of new-generation BelugaXL versions. At 63.1 metres in length, the XL is more than double the size of the blue whale (which is 24 to 30 metres), the largest living mammal on Earth.
The BelugaXL has two Rolls-Royce Trent 700 Turbofan engines to power it into the sky, costing about $40 million each. The entire programme to build these machines cost over $1 billion.
The Guppy before the Beluga
The Beluga was developed as a successor to the Super Guppy.
Created by NASA, it first flew in the 1960s and played a big role in America’s race to space. Back in the day, rocket parts were carried to Cape Kennedy through the Panama Canal or the Gulf of Mexico on barges. This took a lot of time causing delays to the country’s face programme.
In 1962, a new aircraft was built with the widest cargo hold ever, nearly 20 feet in diameter. Now spacecraft components could be transported in 18 hours instead of 18 days, according to a report by CNN. This was called the Pregnant Guppy, the first in a series of eight Guppy aircraft that would be built later.
A retired US Air Force pilot Jack Conroy, who designed the first Guppy plane, founded a company Aero Spacelines, to build and operate the plane, which ended up being 16 feet longer than the Boeing 377, and the only aircraft in the world capable of transporting the upper stage of a Saturn rocket for the Apollo programme, reports CNN.
In 1965, a sequel to the plane was created and it was called the Super Guppy. It served NASA for more than three decades, supporting its various space programmes.
With inputs from agencies
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