Airbus Rattles Its Whale of a Jet in the Name of Safety

It was a balmy evening, and Airbus was walking out of Le Cafe des Nuages with its date when a hoodlum jumped in front of the pair, held a commercial airliner to Airbus’ neck, and demanded its wallet. Airbus chuckled. “That’s not a plane,” it said. “This is a plane.” And it pulled out a Beluga. The would-be mugger took one look and fled.

So, the Crocodile Dundee thing didn’t actually happen, but if the European planemaker did find itself in a size contest, the Beluga would be hard to beat. Since 1995, Airbus has used the comically bulbous aircraft to transport oversize, unwieldy cargo like fuselages and wings between its European production and assembly plants.

Now, Airbus is going even bigger, with the Beluga XL. The new generation of the transporter plane, in development since 2014, is based on Airbus’ twin-engine A330-200 freighter, and, like its predecessor, does an outstanding impression of Will Ferrell’s Megamind. It will be 20 feet longer and three feet wider than the original. It will also be able to lift six more tons, but weight matters less here than that extra space: The outgoing Beluga can only carry one wing of the popular A350 XWB airliner; the XL can carry both.

If all goes according to plan, the company will put the first Beluga XL into service next year, then build four more to round out the fleet. This being aviation, the new jet must brave a series of torments before it can swing open its front-mounted cargo door and gulp down whatever needs transporting, and this week, Airbus announced the XL had cleared another hurdle: the static ground vibration test.

Conducted by the DLR (the German equivalent of NASA) and French aerospace lab Onera, the test involves 14 electrodynamic shakers, which are basically long metal poles attached to various bits of the aircraft: the tail, the wing tips, the engines. These thin rods then piston back and forth, some of them applying up to 670 Newtons of force, to make the whole thing vibrate.

Meanwhile, 600 sensors, connected by 23,000 feet of cable, measure the acceleration and displacement of the Beluga’s fuselage, engines, wings, and empennage (that’s the fancy collective term for the horizontal and vertical stabilizers, and rudder on the tail).

The point of this shakedown is to improve Airbus’ understanding of how its plane will behave in the air, to verify or update its computer models. It’s also key for ensuring the plane won’t fall victim to flutter, where parts of the aircraft start to oscillate, increasing in amplitude until things start breaking. Flutter is what triggered the famous swaying and collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge—aka Galloping Gerdie—in 1940. And of all the things you want your airplane wings not to do, rollicking is right up there with snapping off.

The Beluga XL spent eight days being poked and prodded, first with an empty fuselage, then fully loaded with cargo. Airbus says it’s pleased with the results—no galloping to be seen—and that this whale of an airplane is on track to make its maiden flight later this summer.

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