This month has seen the first structurally complete airframe for the new BelugaXL roll out of the assembly hangar in Toulouse, ready to start flying by mid-2018.
Once operational, a fleet of these next-generation airlifters will be used to transport completed sections of Airbus aircraft among the company's European production sites and to its final assembly lines in France, Germany and Spain.
The BelugaXL is one of the most voluminous aircraft in existence. With a bulging upper forward fuselage and enormous cargo area, the BelugaXL is hardly recognisable as the outsized airlifter version of the Airbus A330-200 jetliner from which it is derived.
"We have the A330 as a foundation," said Bertrand George, head of the BelugaXL programme, "but many changes have been successfully designed, introduced into the aircraft and tested. Transforming an existing product into a super transporter is not a simple task."
The aircraft will now undergo many months' of tests after installation of its two jet engines, ensuring each of the BelugaXL's systems function as intended. "We will perform bench tests in Toulouse and Hamburg - testing our systems on flight simulators and in laboratories," said George, adding that his team would use hydraulic jacks to simulate flight loads on full-scale copies of specific joints between the new upper bubble and the A330's lower fuselage.
"The data from these tests will be used to clear the aircraft for flight and, later on, to attain type certification," the official pronouncement of the aircraft's safety and airworthiness, he said.
While the first structurally complete BelugaXL moves into its testing phase, the second A330 to be converted into a BelugaXL arrived on schedule in Toulouse to begin its integration process. George noted that with lessons learned from the production of the first transporter, the assembly time for the second is expected to be about two months shorter.
The BelugaXL programme was launched in November 2014 to address Airbus' increasing transport requirements. At six metres longer, one metre wider and with a payload lifting capacity six tonnes greater than the BelugaST transporter version it is replacing, the BelugaXL will be able to transport both wings of the A350 XWB jetliner at once, instead of the single wing currently accommodated on the BelugaST. Five BelugaXLs are scheduled to enter service for Airbus' airlift needs.