The Airbus Beluga XL has finally hit the skies, and it’s lived up to the hype and its name.
The world’s smiliest plane had a whale of a time on its first commercial adventure, touching down in Bremen, Germany, nearly two hours after leaving the Airbus head office in Toulouse.
At 63 metres long and eight metres wide, the ginormous aircraft boasts the largest cargo bay cross-section of any plane currently in operation, and to untrained eyes looks far too bulky to get off the ground.
The front portion of the plane – the head, in whale terms – swings upwards to allow unhindered entrance to the body of the plane, which can carry a whopping payload of 51 tonnes.
A successor to the Airbus A300-600ST (also known as the Beluga ST), the XL comes with a more overtly whale-like posture, as well as painted on eyes and smile. The current unit is the first of six additional XLs, which will enter service between 2020 and 2023.
Unfortunately, you won’t be able to travel on any them, as the “super transporter” planes are for cargo only – set to ferry plane parts between Airbus production sites and assembly lines.
After five long years of building and testing the plane is hotly anticipated, and was spotted last year undergoing trial flights near the Airbus factory in Broughton, North Wales.
The streamlined nose makes the plane more aerodynamic, the raised tail helps make up for the bulbous body, and the paint job was overwhelmingly chosen in a poll of Airbus staff. Intensively tested, the model notched up more than 700 hours in the air before entering full-time service.
It’s not the first beluga whale to stray from its natural habitat, after an apparently lost whale (promptly nicknamed Benny) turned up in the River Thames, London, last year. If the Beluga XL proves even half as popular, Airbus will be in for a good year.