Airbus A350-900

In the belly of the whale

Airbus A350-900

  • TEXT PATRICK WITTE
  • PHOTOS WERNER BARTSCH

The Beluga is the backbone of operations at aircraft manufacturer Airbus. Every day, the giant freighter transports airplane parts to production sites around Europe. Currently, its main cargo consists of components belonging to the world’s most cutting-edge passenger plane.

It is 3:47 in the afternoon. For the third time today, Birger Thomßen peers into the white whale’s gullet, right down its long snout into its giant stomach and almost all the way to its tail fin. Officially, this is an A300-600ST, but here at the Airbus plant in Hamburg-Finkenwerder, everyone calls it the Beluga. It is the biggest freight plane in the world.

 

The Airbus 300-600 has a super transporter's short nose and high forehead

The Airbus 300-600 super transporter's short nose and high forehead gave it the nickname Beluga

© Werner Bartsch

The super transporter lands at the Airbus facility airport sometimes four times a day. Airbus has built five different models of the type A300-600ST plane since 1995, when they began transporting A330 or A380 components and sections and ferrying cockpits, passenger cabins, wings and rudders to their final assembly sites. Hamburg, Seville, Broughton, Toulouse – Airbus has sites distributed across half of Europe, and each one specializes in particular components. It’s like a giant family whose members are separated by thousands of kilometers, and the Beluga brings them all together. As Birger Thomßen puts it, the giant aircraft is “the eye of the needle for Airbus.”

Thomßen is one of four ground coordinators responsible for handling deliveries and shipments. The 33-year-old makes sure that the A350 components that are made in Hamburg arrive at their final assembly destinations safely and on time. Each loading and unloading process is a logistical challenge. The giant Beluga has to be towed into the cargo facility very carefully because its giant doors only allow for thirty centimeters on either side. Thomßen and his colleagues have to work under time pressure. All they have is ninety minutes because the Beluga’s schedule is so tight. “A storm in Seville or dense fog in England causes problems for us here,” Thomßen says.

The belly of the Beluga

The Beluga once transported sections of the ESA space lab and over-sized paintings, but today, it only flies for Airbus due to the aircraft manufacturer's tight production schedule

© Werner Bartsch
The tail segment, weighing more than 22 tons, enters the cargo bay by ramp

The tail segment, weighing more than 22 tons, enters the cargo bay by ramp

© Werner Bartsch
The special loading facility Warehouse 82 entirely swallows the “white whale’s” head

The special loading facility Warehouse 82 entirely swallows the “white whale’s” head

© Werner Bartsch
A tail segment of the A350 waits to begin its journey

Supported by the cradle, the tail segment of the A350 waits to begin its journey to its final assembly site in Toulouse

© Werner Bartsch
Rivets, flaps and bolts cover the A350

Rivets, flaps and bolts: Up close, the A350 looks like a piece of modern art

© Werner Bartsch
The Beluga has room for large cargo

Despite its large cargo, the Beluga still has room for more. She will pick up a cockpit segment on an intermediate stop in France

© Werner Bartsch
The Beluga plane during take-off in Hamburg-Finkenwerder

Airbus only ever built five models of the Beluga plane. They commute daily between France, England, Germany and Spain

© Werner Bartsch

  At the moment, the super transporter is performing a particularly important role for the Airbus A350. The aircraft maker’s most recent long-haul carrier is a record-breaker on many fronts: Made of a lightweight composite material called CFRP (carbon fiber reinforced polymer), it consumers 25 percent less fuel, while its innovative new turbine engines reduce its noise footprint by up to 30 percent. The A350 is a prestigious project, and without the Beluga, its production would be virtually impossible. Birger Thomßen is under delivery pressure, too. Lufthansa alone has ordered 25 type A350 aircraft, three of which are scheduled to begin flying from Munich to Delhi and Boston this February. Roughly 20 more will join the fleet this summer.

Today, tail segment 13/14 has to be prepared for shipment to Toulouse. “We produce two of the A350 tail segments right here in Hamburg,” explains Thomßen, “with the site in Stade delivering the rudders.” In Toulouse, assembly technicians connect the cockpit, rudder and wings to the fuselage while others complete the interiors of the passenger cabins by installing the latest FlyNet technology, more comfortable seats and a special lighting system that makes it easier for passengers to sleep on long-haul flights.

There’s room here for up to 47 tons of freight, the weight equivalent of roughly ten full-size elephants

 

Thomßen, dressed in a safety vest, stands at a control panel ten meters above the ground. The cargo bay above the cockpit gapes in front of him like a giant cave. Thomßen peers into the round, black hole where nothing would be visible at all if it weren’t for small light bulbs. The cargo bay is 37.7 meters long, 7.40 meters wide and more than seven meters tall, and comprises a surface area of over 1300 square meters. The Beluga can hold 47 tons of freight, the equivalent in weight of around ten full-size elephants. The tail section of the A350, the component being loaded today, weighs more than 22 tons and is over 15 meters long. Most importantly, however, it’s only six meters wide. It will be a tight squeeze, even for a transporter this size. There’s no margin for error. Even a small dent would cause damage in the million-euro bracket and production delays.

Yellow and blue lines guide the Beluga to the loading ramp with centimeter precision

Yellow and blue lines guide the Beluga to the loading ramp with centimeter precision

© Werner Bartsch
The large cargo bay of the Beluga

The Beluga has the largest cargo bay of any freight airplane

© Werner Bartsch

  Three years ago, a special cargo facility, Warehouse 82, was built to ensure full control of such heavy and cumbersome freight. Secured against strong side winds, the aircraft is towed into the facility, where the Beluga Interface Rack, a white metal monstrosity on wheels, is driven right up to within centimeters of the super transporter. It encloses the fuselage like a sleeve, positioning the open freight door right in front of the three loading ramps, the main components of the Interface Rack. Each ramp is 70 meters long and can be moved sideways at the push of a button. Once in place, they form an extension to the two metal rails along which the freight is guided in the Beluga’s belly. An automatic alignment system balances out every movement.

Once again, the snout of the whale is positioned perfectly in place. Standing at the controls, Birger Thomßen maneuvers the tail segment of the A350 into position. During flight, it rests on a supportive and protective cradle that looks much like an egg cup wrapped in cotton wool. Thomßen guides the sensitive freight into the cargo bay at five centimeters per second, and very gradually, the huge component disappears into the white belly of the whale, where it is ultimately locked into place with safety bolts. Done. In record time.

At 4:50 pm the Beluga Tango Charlie asks the tower for permission to take off. Soon after, the Beluga rises into the air and disappears behind gray clouds.