A Flying Whale? You’re Not Dreaming

Unique ‘Dreamlifter,’ ‘Beluga’ planes play crucial role in aircraft manufacturing

By Evan Dougherty

Published July 20, 2020

Read Time: 4 mins


Airplanes come in all different shapes and sizes – it’s what makes them stand apart. However, some aircraft stand out a little more than others.

Boeing’s “Dreamlifter” and Airbus’ “Beluga” – massive planes with fuselages that look almost swollen – are among the strangest-looking aircraft in the skies today.

“Sometimes you ask yourself how a plane shaped like that is even able to fly,” said Alex Meunier, an aviation photographer from Toulouse, France.

As unusual as these planes may appear, they actually play a critical role for Boeing and Airbus in manufacturing commercial aircraft.

Bringing the pieces together

Airplanes are complex machines with thousands of parts, many built by suppliers from around the world. Some, like wing sections, are huge.

Getting the largest airplane components to the final assembly line presents a logistical challenge for Boeing and Airbus. Even the world’s largest cargo planes, like the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy and the massive Antonov An-124, are not big enough.

An Airbus A300-605ST Beluga flies toward France’s Toulouse–Blagnac Airport. (Photo by Alex Meunier)

Because of this, Boeing and Airbus rely on fleets of specialized cargo planes that are specifically modified to carry airplane sections: the Dreamlifter and the Beluga.

“The Dreamlifter and Beluga have proven invaluable to the manufacturing process,” said Douglas Banez, managing director of Hubpoint Strategic Advisors. “Operationally, the aircraft allow oversized components, like wing and fuselage sections, to be produced far from the points of final assembly.”

Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, for example, uses components manufactured by suppliers on several continents. The 787’s fuselage sections are built in Italy, while the wings are made in Japan. Final assembly of the 787 takes place at Boeing’s facilities in Seattle, Wash., and Charleston, S.C.

Similarly, Airbus is a multinational company consisting of suppliers from several countries in Europe. Each country is assigned to build a specific part of an airplane. Each component is then shipped by air to one of Airbus’ main facilities in France, Germany or Spain.

“Strategically, having a diversified supplier base reduces risk for Boeing and Airbus that could be caused in particular locations due to issues like labor disruptions, raw materials shortages, and natural disasters,” Banez said.

Not like any other aircraft

The Boeing Dreamlifter and the Airbus Beluga, while originating from existing aircraft, are customized for their role in transporting outsized airplane parts.

The Dreamlifter is a highly modified 747-400 designed to carry components of Boeing’s 787, including the pre-built fuselage pieces and wings. Entering service in 2006, the Dreamlifter frequently flies from Seattle and Charleston to points in Europe and Asia to pick up parts from suppliers to be brought over for final assembly.

The huge plane has a bulging fuselage 7 feet taller and 6 feet wider than a regular 747, providing up to a total of 65,000 cubic feet of space. The Dreamlifter also has a larger tail to give the aircraft better aerodynamic stability while in flight.

Boeing has a fleet of four Dreamlifters, with cargo airline Atlas Air providing the pilots. One of the rarest planes in the sky, its unique appearance attracts the attention of many planespotters and aviation enthusiasts.

“The first time I saw the Dreamlifter back in 2012, I was taken aback by its sheer size. Not only is it a 747, but a supersized 747 – so it is impressive in its own right,” said Preston Fiedler, an aviation photographer from Seattle, Wash. “Its own design is sophisticated, and that alone makes it one of my favorite planes to see.”

Most cargo aircraft have cargo ramps at the front or rear of the airplane. However, the Dreamlifter’s entire tail section is hinged, allowing it to swing open. With the help of special ground equipment, outsized airplane parts are loaded in through the aircraft’s tail.

A Boeing Dreamlifter taxiis at Paine Field Airport, located near Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Preston Fiedler)

“It’s a unique experience to witness the choreography of the load-unload process. Not many aircraft have a swinging section encompassing the entire aft fuselage and tail assembly,” Fiedler said. “Witnessing the 787 wings, engines, fuselage sections and other parts emerge from within the aircraft is something not many people get to see, and that adds a lot to the meaning of the aircraft for me.”

The Airbus Beluga is also based on an existing platform: the A300 widebody jet. After undergoing two years of modifications and a testing program, the first Beluga entered service in late 1995. Airbus built a total of five Belugas, all of which are still in service.

The Beluga has a larger fuselage, with an 8-foot increase in diameter over a standard A300. The cockpit structure is lowered to make room for cargo loaders extracting cargo from the plane’s massive forward cargo door. Both engines on the Beluga are uprated for increased thrust. Despite the differences, many of the Belugas’ structural parts share commonality with standard A300s.

Like the Dreamlifter in the U.S., Airbus’ fleet of Belugas captivates planespotters throughout Europe.

“It really looks like a beluga whale,” said Meunier, who has spotted and photographed the aircraft in France. “It’s a rare sight, but also it’s an important aircraft because it plays a role in the production of other planes.”

In 2018, Airbus rolled out a new cargo transport: the Beluga XL. Based on the newer A330-200, the Beluga XL offers better fuel efficiency and a greater payload – 12% more volume than the original Beluga. The Beluga XL is mainly designed to transport components for Airbus’ A320, A330 and A350 passenger jets.

Airbus’ first Beluga XL entered revenue service in January of this year and the company plans to build four more aircraft, enough to eventually phase out the original Beluga fleet by 2025.

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