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The World flies on our wings - Beluga operations out of Hawarden

This feature was first published in 2013 and the information was correct at that time. Some things have changed and I have made a few amendments and additions but in essence the process is still fundamentally the same. I hope you enjoy reading it.

So you have decided to build different parts for a range of technologically advanced airliners at points all around Europe and then fit them all together in just three sites. How do you then get these quite considerable pieces of valuable kit from where they are manufactured to where they are assembled?

Road is an option and is used to some degree as is sea transport but both are a lot slower than transporting items by air.

These items are however not able to simply fit into what might be called a standard cargo aircraft and the availability of outsize cargo aircraft at regular times is not really an option. Factor in the very fluid nature of the manufacturing requirements and there really is only one option and this is to run the aircraft for yourselves. Originally using the Aero Spacelines Super Guppy, a derivative of the Boeing Stratocruiser and operated by Aeromaritime Airbus started flying some sections into Toulouse. However these aircraft were becoming rather elderly and were somewhat inadequate for the needs of the growing company so Airbus needed to look at alternatives.

This is where Airbus Transport International (ATI) came in. A wholly owned subsidiary of Airbus it runs as a cargo airline operating the only five examples in the world of the very distinctive A300-600ST Beluga which was designed and built by Airbus specifically to fulfill this role. Originally as a nickname but later adopted as an official title the name Beluga was coined due to the aircrafts striking resemblance to the Beluga whale.

Employing over 150, ATI holds seven licences required to support it's fleet and operations. It is capable of independently training it's pilots as well as both flight and ground mechanics. It can design, produce and apply its own aircraft modification and repair solutions as well as the more day to day managing of its fleet and operations.

The Beluga is based on the twin engined A300-600R, a type which has sold 561 airframes to both passenger and freighter airlines, some of which are still in service now. Each Beluga was constructed from A300-600 sections which were removed from the final Assembly line (FAL) after which the specific modified sections were added to it to create the Beluga version.

A total of 5 A300-600 Super Transporters have been built and it made its first flight on the 13th September 1994 with the first aircraft entering service in January 1996. Further aircraft entered service in April 1996, May 1997, June 1998 and lastly January 2001. Each aircraft has an expected lifespan in excess of 30 years.

The Beluga it is 56 metres long, 17 metres high with a fuselage diameter of 7.71 metres which gives a main-deck cargo volume of 1,400 cubic metres making it comparable with the the AN-124 and the C17. Belly cargo space is also utilised at times. Its General Electric CF6-80C2 engines can carry the aircraft and its maximum payload of 47 metric tonnes non stop over a range of 1,600km/900 nm. Although less likely to happen nowadays it can also fly transatlantic operations (2500nm) with a payload of 31 metric tonnes. In the past when there was spare capacity in the fleet the aircraft has carried quite a varied cargo operating to Australia with Helicopters, Tokyo with an old master oil painting, Djibuti with German Air Force helicopters as well as quite a lot of space work with satellites to Baikonur and Kourou and to the US with components of the international space station.

However work is now wholly Airbus and with the start of production of the A350 XWB this will lead to a substantial increase in the activities of the Belugas over the next five years. Not only because of it being another aircraft in construction but also that on each Beluga flight only one wing can be transported at a time as opposed to one set of wings for the A330 and two sets of wings for the single aisle family.

This challenge will be met by what ATI calls the Fly10,000 project. In conjunction with the various Airbus site stations flight hours will be increased from the current 5-6,000 to 10,000 in 2017. Greater utilisation of the aircraft is a major part of this as there are no current plans to increase the fleet and to this end ATI are currently recruiting more aircrew. In addition to this, a considerable amount of money is to be spent at some stations including today's departure airport of Broughton, otherwise known as Hawarden or Chester, IATA code CEG where inclement weather can affect operations. The main culprit being wind. This is something that no one can do anything about as the aircraft cannot land if the wind is 22 knots gusting to 32 knots and there is no way of protecting the aircraft from it. Additionally a crosswind of 20-25 knots during the day and 15-20 at night is also realistically unsurmountable as disregarding cost it is not feasible to build another runway to avoid crosswind landings so the aircraft would again be unable to land over these limits.

Further to this there is a maximum wind speed of 30 knots above which the door cannot be safely opened and the Cargo loaders cannot be raised which can also delay things. This means that it is actually possible to land the aircraft but not be able to load the cargo. This maximum loading wind speed of 30 knots is now avoided by the construction of a building called a Beluga Integrated Loading Facility at the Line Station into which the aircraft will be positioned whereby all loading will be protected from the weather therefore avoiding such delays.

As mentioned these aircraft do not run to a timetable but fly on a needs basis to wherever they are required most. So how does a flight happen?

Airbus Industrial Planning creates a production schedule for each aircraft section including the dates for transport required between each site. The Beluga schedule is created based on these demands accounting for variables including weather forecast and Line Station/Airport opening times.

The first glimpse of the aircraft is as it arrives over the airfield heading for its downwind leg onto finals on 04 at Broughton. Gently touching down, F-GSTC rolls to the end of the runway then backtracks and taxies to park on Apron Bravo whereupon it becomes the responsibility of Airbus Ground co-ordinator.

The Ground Coordinator is informed of the Beluga Schedule and prepares the pre-flight equipment and the load from the Line Stations documentation describing the preparation and condition of each Transport Cargo Unit (TCU). The Line Stations have a standard process for unloading and loading operations.

When the Beluga arrives he supervises all ground operations (handling & servicing and loading of the Beluga). Once this is complete and paperwork signed the aircraft is back in the hands of the aircrew. After departure he informs the Beluga Operational Control Centre.

With the aircraft now under the control of the Ground Co-ordinator Loading of today's cargo of two narrow aisle wing sets can begin but first the empty jigs used to transport a previous set of wings needs to be offloaded. These Jigs and those from the other Airbus plants, are realistically the only freight carried out of Toulouse other than Pylons for the single aisle range which are produced at the St Eloi plant in Toulouse and transported to Hamburg for fitting to the wings during final assembly.

First of all, set above the specially lowered cockpit section the massive cargo door, which is the largest door ever built on an aircraft and designed in such a way that it does not limit the size of the cargo, is raised. An empty cargo loading vehicle is driven over to the aircraft, positioned carefully by the driver and finally guided by lasers into position over the cockpit.

Once in position the flight engineer on the Beluga starts the empty jigs moving towards the cargo loading vehicle. Once it is just on the loader the control is then taken over by the operator to bring it safely onto the bed of the machine whereupon it reverses away from the aircraft back to the holding area and off loads the empty jig. This process is repeated once more as the aircraft has two empty jig’s. Once the offload is competed then the loading of the wings can take place. This process is essentially the same as the offloading but in reverse order. The wing sets in the jigs and now called Transport Cargo Unit (TCU)are swallowed easily into the cavernous cargo hold as the wings are within the TCU’s (TCU is actually the collective term for the section of aircraft being transported and the jig together).

Clearance is predetermined and as such no specific extra care needs to be taken as it will definitely fit. In fact the cargo is fitted in such a way as to have a minimum of 15 centimetres clearance all around as the fuselage actually moves from side to side whilst inflight. Whilst these operations are in progress the flight crew are working on the paperwork for the trip home and as soon as the cargo door is closed the flight is ready for departure, well within the planned average turnaround time of 90 minutes for Broughton. Other stations have a planned time a little longer due to not having a cargo loader but the frequency of service at these stations is lower.

Entry to the aircraft is via a door directly under the fuselage to the rear of the nose wheel. Just inside there is a small area where items can be stowed. also in here there is a purpose built compartment for personal baggage.

Entry into the cockpit is via what appears to be a normal cockpit door from the outside but is something rather more substantial as the cockpit is the only area of the aircraft that is pressurised. There are five seats in total in the cockpit area. In addition to the obvious seats for the Captain and First Officer there is what might be termed the standard jump seat in the middle and behind these which is occupied by the Flight Engineer. One further forward facing jump seat is situated to the rear of the Captain with the final seat rearward facing at the back in the cockpit entrance area.

Speaking with the ground engineer the crew first check that all doors and hatches are secure. First officer Machavoine then calls ATC "Beluga 3 tango charlie (BGA3TC) clearance to start?" Flight number is simply the aircraft number (3) and the last two digits of the registration (TC) and nothing to do with the routing.

Permission is granted from ATC and the crew start the No2 engine first. The ground engineer first replies "turning" and then "ignition" which is confirmed via the engine instrumentation on the CRT's in the cockpit. This is then repeated with the No1 engine. Taxy permission is received from ATC and at 5:14 on a sunny evening the aircraft starts its taxy out to runway 04 for the departure to Toulouse.

Take off clearance received and Captain Thierry Tremerel who is the Pilot flying (PF) for this leg spools up the engines and the aircraft starts its take off run. With room to spare it lifts easily from Broughtons 6700 foot runway just 6 minutes after taxy and turns towards Rexham squawking 2272 with Broughton tower handing the flight over to Scottish control.

Captain Tremerel, First Officer Christophe Machavoine and Flight Engineer Daniel Echevard complete the after take off checks and the aircraft settles into the climb to the cruising altitude today of 29,000 feet.This is quite normal ops for the aircraft, cruising altitude is generally 29 - 30,000 feet with a maximum of 33,000. Cruising speed is .69 Mach slightly reduced against a standard A300 due to the added drag and pressure the airframe produces as well as the limitations of the cargo door. The aircraft can climb at a maximum rate of 4000 per minute when empty but this reduces with weight. A small point to note is that this is probably the only aircraft in Europe that currently operates with a three crew cockpit. The reason for the three crew is not that the aircraft can't be flown with two crew but because of the specialist design of the aircraft and the way in which it is operated means that a registered engineer is not based at each station. Given that such a person has to sign the aircraft off at each station means that you have to take one with you. Combine this with the need for a loadmasters role means you have a three man crew.

The cockpit is a third generation glass cockpit which means there is a combination of CRT and standard dials. Being an early Airbus design the now customary sidestick controllers are missing and the aircraft has the conventional central yoke. Apart from the somewhat lowered height of the cockpit there is little or no difference to a standard A300. In fact the aircraft flies like any standard A300 apart from the limitations of cruising altitude and speed.

Captain Thierry Tremerel joined Airbus training back in 1992 as a type rating instructor on the A300 and A340 after spending 20 years in the French Air Force flying many Air transport types such as the Noratlas, C160 Transall in addition to the A310. In 1997 he moved onto the Beluga initially as a First Officer but is now a training Captain, a role he has held since 2003. The First Officer, Christophe Machavoine is still in his training period having only joined ATI back in January of 2013. He also has a background of service in the French Air Force having spent 21 years flying, amongst others, the Falcon 20, A310 and C130 before moving on to airline work in the Middle East flying the A300-600 so he is very used to this environment.

Even though there is a somewhat limited route structure of Toulouse, St Nazaire, Nantes and Meaulte in France. Hamburg (Finkenwerder), Bremen and Lagerlechfel in Germany. Broughton in the UK. Madrid and Sevilla in Spain and Ankara in Turkey. There is nothing like a normal day of operations. The schedule is very fluid as mentioned previously as it is governed by the requirements of the production schedules all around Europe but most of all at the final assembly sites at Toulouse and Hamburg.

Today's routing is initially south abeam Bristol en route to the south coast around Torquay passing the Channel Islands and overflying another Airbus site at St Nazaire and then hugging the French coast turning inland again at Bordeaux for a 32L arrival at Toulouse. Having taken on 19 tonnes of fuel at Broughton the aircrafts all up weight was 132 tonnes on departure. Each engine burns about 2.5 tonnes per hour and with a flight time of 1 hour 50 minutes this means a landing weight of 122 tonnes so a check on the landing information chart stipulates a speed of 133 knots landing speed for 'tango charlie'

Once on the ground the aircraft taxies to the centrally located Beluga parking and loading area positioning in between Beluga number 2 and the all white number 5 F-GSTF which at the time of writing was imminently due for painting into the ATI corporate livery. Offloading is not scheduled until the morning so the crew finish of the paperwork and depart in the crew bus for the hotel. As this is right in the centre of the Airbus plant there are some great views of aircraft parked around the site. Some examples being Air Asia Japan, Mandala, Jetstar Hong Kong and Peach single aisle aircraft along with some heavies in the shape of Hawaiian, Malaysian, Turkish, Cathay and Cebu Pacific Air A330. In the distance 380’s destined for Air France, Emirates and Thai can be seen.

This was the end of a really interesting flight in what was in effect a biz jet, not what you might consider a normal biz jet but certainly a completely unique piece of aviation. Definitely an experience and one which left me wondering if I will ever fly using today's cargo. Time will tell.

As most of you will know, the Beluga XL is now in use as are the aforementioned Line stations around Europe which has amended operations somewhat. The XL can take larger loads and therefore it now takes just one trip for a full load of A350 wing sets rather than two. Wind issues are now mitigated as assuming the aircraft can land safely all loading is now done inside away from the vagaries of the weather and as such the actual finer points of the process is different but the basis is the same.

My thanks go to Robert Gage, Media Relations Manager at Broughton [At the time] for his tireless efforts in making this trip happen and to Captain Tremerel, F/O Machavoine and F/E Echevard for their company and information during the flight.

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