The Airbus A300-600ST (Super Transporter) or Beluga, is a version of the standard A300-600wide-bodyairliner modified to carry aircraft parts and oversized cargo. It was officially called the Super Transporter at first, but the name Beluga became popular and has now been officially adopted.
Several major aircraft manufacturers are multinational, and it is not unusual for them to have plants in widely separated locations. Airbus is unique in that it is a consortium formed by the major British, French, German, and Spanish aerospace companies. The geographic location of Airbus manufacturing is not only influenced by cost and convenience, it is also a matter of aviation history and national interest. Each of the Airbus partners makes an entire aircraft section, which must be transported to a central location for final assembly. The details vary from one model to another, but the general arrangement is for the wings and landing gear to be made in the UK, the tail and doors in Spain, the fuselage in Germany, and the nose and centre-section in France, with final assembly in either Toulouse, France; Hamburg, Germany; or Seville, Spain.
When Airbus started in 1970, the first few components were delivered by road, but growing production soon necessitated a switch to air transport. From 1972 onwards, a fleet of four highly modified "Super Guppies" took over. These were former Boeing Stratocruisers from the 1940s, converted with custom fuselages and turbine engines to carry large volume loads for the 1960s NASA space program, leading to the jest that "every Airbus is delivered on the wings of a Boeing". As time went by, the Super Guppies grew increasingly unsatisfactory for Airbus's ferrying needs: their age meant that operating expenses were high and ever-increasing, and growing Airbus production required greater capacity.
In 1991 Aérospatiale and DASA, two of the major Airbus partners, formed a company to develop a replacement. The starting point was the design for the wide-body twin-engined Airbus A300: the wings, engines, landing gear, and the lower part of the fuselage are the same as the A300 while the upper part of the fuselage is an enormous horseshoe-shaped structure 7.7 m (25 ft) in diameter. To provide access to the cargo area from the front without having to disconnect all electrical, hydraulic and flight control connections (not to mention the lengthy recalibrations before each flight the reconnection entailed), the standard A300 cockpit was moved down below the cargo floor level, and the tail structure was enlarged and strengthened to maintain directional stability.
Construction began in September 1992, and the first flight took place in September 1994. After 335 hours of test flying, restricted certification was awarded in October 1995, and the A300-600ST "Beluga" entered service. Four more Belugas were constructed, at a rate of roughly one per year, and all five remain in regular service. Their primary task is to carry Airbus components ready for final assembly across Europe to Toulouse or Hamburg, but they are also available for charter work, and have been used to carry a variety of special loads, including space station components, large, very delicate artwork, industrial machinery, and entire helicopters. (One Beluga was chartered to carry two complete NHI NH90s and a Eurocopter Tiger from Europe to Australia and back). The A300-600ST's freight compartment is 7.4 m (24 ft) in diameter and 37.7 m (124 ft) long; maximum payload is 47 tonnes. At 155 tonnes its maximum take-off weight is comparable to a normal A300, showing that the Beluga was intended for large but relatively light cargo.
The main deck cargo volume of the Beluga is greater than that of the C-5 Galaxy or the Antonov An-124 but still smaller than Antonov An-225. However it is restricted by cargo weight capacity of 47 tonnes, compared to 122.5 tonnes for the C-5 Galaxy and 150 tonnes for the An-124. Despite this width, the Beluga cannot carry most fuselage parts of the A380, which have to be brought by ship and road usually. The Beluga has been used to transport a few A380 components.
In 1999 a Beluga carried a large painting Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix which had hung in the Louvre in Paris since 1874. It was flown from Paris to Tokyo via Bahrain and Calcutta in about 20 hours. The large canvas, measuring 2.99 metres (9.81 ft) high by 3.62 metres (11.88 ft) long, was too large to fit into a Boeing 747. It was transported in the vertical position inside a special pressurized container provided with isothermal protection and an anti-vibration device.