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World’s strangest-looking airplane? New Airbus ‘Beluga’ takes flight

The Airbus BelugaXL taxis after successfully completing its first flight at Toulouse-Blagnac airport, in Toulouse, southern France, Thursday, July 19, 2018. | AP Photo

Airbus completed the maiden flight of its massive new BelugaXL transport aircraft on Thursday, debuting the plane in front of a crowd of more than 10,000 near the company’s headquarters in Toulouse, France.

Airbus’ oddly shaped jet – named for its resemblance to the whale of the same name – is the first of five that Airbus expects to build by 2023. The jets will be used to phase out the existing BelugaST models that the company uses to shuttle large aircraft pieces to its assembly centers.

The first flight of the new AirbusXL took off from the Toulouse-Blagnac Airport in France, flying for 4 hours and 11 minutes before returning to land at the same airport.

Next up for the plane is 10 months of flight testing that should lead to the BelugaXL’s certification. If all goes as planned, Airbus hopes to put the first BelugaXL into service sometime next year.

The BelugaST that the “XL” will replace is technically the Airbus A300-600ST, a heavily modified version of Airbus’ now-discontinued A300 model. It initially was called the Super Transporter in the 1990s when it began to phase out an earlier transport model dubbed the “Super Guppy.” Eventually the A300-600ST took on the name of the whale many say it resembles.

The plane is used by European jetmaker Airbus to ferry aircraft and extra-large cargo. It’s especially useful for the company in moving large plane parts from its production facilities to its assembly lines.

The BelugaST is capable of holding the wings of an A340 widebody. It also is capable of transporting the fuselage section of Airbus’ newest widebody jet, the A350. Such oversized parts would otherwise be difficult, if not impossible, to fit into typical transport aircraft.

Airbus created its supersize BelugaST by cutting the top section off one of its Airbus A300 widebody jet models and then adding a bubble-shaped additional fuselage to the airframe. The A300 is no longer in production, something that helped lead to the even-bigger BelugaXL.

The new XL was developed by making similar modifications to Airbus’ current A330-200 freighter widebody.

Once it’s certified, the XL will begin to take over missions now performed with the ST. Airbus says the transport aircraft will operate from 11 destinations as the company’s method of transporting large aircraft components to assembly centers.

Chicago-based Boeing has its own special transport plane for flying oversized items. Boeing’s is a modified 747, which was designed largely to transport pieces of the Dreamliner — which explains the “Dreamlifter” name that Boeing gave to its equivalent of Beluga.