Features

Published on July 25th, 2018 | by FII Reader

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In Search of the Beluga

As every keen angler knows, time exhausted during the waiting game can be well rewarded with a catch on the end of the hook. For many though, returning home unsuccessfully having had not a bite, can be hugly disappointing. Sounds a lot like plane spotting…………..

February last, saw a group of intrepid enthusiasts set out for an adventure organised by Airliner Experience, in search of the elusive Beluga. Sharing its name with the marine mammal, the group armed not with harpoon but rather with expensive cameras and telephoto lenses. Any ‘hunting‘ would be of an entirely photographic nature, with visuals and images being the only trophies from this trip.

Location for our fertile fishing grounds was Airbus UK – Broughton, North Wales. If a chance of hooking a Beluga was to be had, Hawarden Airport home to Airbus aircraft wing manufacture, was the place to fend. With permission for a factory visit from Airbus UK in the net, the group flew to Liverpool Airport and travelled the hour by road to the massive Broughton site.

A most hospitable welcome was received from the enthusiastic Airbus staff upon arrival and our group were ushered inside the Airbus Visitors Centre. A suite designed with aircraft aficionado’s in mind, in fact this series of interlocking spaces lavished with Airbus DNA, sets the tone for an incredibly special experience, as only a blue-chip company such as Airbus could produce.

Although the manufacturer’s history and enormous achievements are displayed throughout this ‘Av-Geek’ Airbus shrine, it’s not so much a walk down Airbus memory lane which is simply breathtaking but it’s the calm, soothing atmosphere that descends as the level of expertise this global aviation ‘tour de force’ exudes, becomes apparent.

Having been left to our own devices to browse and explore the gems on display in the Visitors Centre for a time, it was down to business with an informative presentation delivered in an enlightening manner by Shaun our knowledgeable guide. Upon completion of the company over-view, once we regained our composure our thoughts returned to the present moment, having drifted off while immersed in the rich tapestry of Airbus, exciting news circulated through the camp – Beluga Incoming! ETA 11 minutes….

With several ‘Flight-Radar’ apps being consulted on the Beluga’s progress our airfield transport was being readied to whisk us into position. ATC at Hawarden Tower confirmed the Beluga’s approach. As the aircraft’s altitude dropped the group’s excitement levels rose. On board the Airbus coach, we were given the full tour of the extensive airfield and its numerous hangar’s, manufacturing facilities and production buildings, each one on a vast scale.

Coming to a halt at our rendezvous point alongside Runway 22, the touch-down point in view. All eyes skyward as the Beluga performs an over-pass which is common practice for an impending arrival. Wind speed and direction are sampled along with ground conditions. The voluminous bulbous design makes this transport aircraft much more susceptible to even slight variations in destination conditions.

Once satisfied, the flight crew prepared for final approach to Hawarden Airport. For most of the visiting group, their first sighting of an Airbus Beluga in the metal. Gracefully touching down like a returning elegant swan, Beluga No.2 (F-GSTB) rolled out past the gaze of avid spectators. A delicate hand on the controls resulted in an undramatic landing but an extremely smooth one.

This particular aircraft was the second one produced back in April 1996. A total number of five A300-600ST “Beluga’s” were manufactured between 1994 and 2001. When Airbus began building aircraft in the early 1970’s, road transport was the preferred method of movement. However, as production ramped up, air transportation became essential and from 1972 onwards a fleet of four “Super Guppies” were used to ferry parts and components between the various Airbus sites.

In the early 90’s a replacement was required for the ageing Guppies which were essentially Boeing Stratocruisers from the 1940’s, heavily modified and used by NASA during the 1960’s. Airbus looked at several potential donor aircraft and finally settled on their own A300-600R as the starting point. After a number of years of design work, the A300-600ST Super Transporter was developed and performed its maiden flight in September 1994, entering service in 1995. A steady pace of manufacture saw roughly one Beluga per year join the fleet. It’s reported that each airframe took a considerable three years to complete.

Pleased to have witnessed a Beluga in flight and back-tracking to the loading facility, our travels on board the Airbus coach continued around the vast site until we arrived at the A380 wing manufacture block. Following our guide Shaun, we entered the Cathedral-like space which is the A380 building where the giant wings are produced before being transported from the North Wales facility by road and then by one of three cargo ships operated by Airbus Industries on to assembly at Toulouse.

At the time of our visit, Airbus had just received excellent news that Emirates Airlines had placed a well needed order for 20 new A380’s with an option for an additional 16. This eleventh hour life-line pulls the A380 manufacturing division back from the brink and propels production of the ‘double-decker’ ten years into the future. The order comes at a time when Airbus was considering scaling down production and possibly even bringing it to an end.

On the back of this there was as expected an upbeat atmosphere at the Airbus campus. The A380 wing manufacturing centre is simply enormous. The tooling and machining are gigantic. The racking and supports are massive. Everything about production is on an epic scale. The wingspan stretches 262 ft in total and the wing area is 9,100 sq ft, spacious enough to field many sports games. The vertical stabiliser is the largest of any, reaching a height of 79 ft, putting the Antonov An-225 in the shade and eclipsing even Boeing’s 747-8.

In light of the welcomed news from Emirates, activity at Broughton will ramp back up to near full scale production levels in due course. Crew’s which were dispersed onto other aircraft production lines will be once again busy with A380 manufacture. Smiles all round.

Our group moved through the cavernous spaces of the A380 facility onwards and upwards, gaining an overview of the mega-wings from gantry level towering above the shop-floor. It’s at this stage that one begins to appreciate the level of engineering knowledge and expertise that’s involved at this the pinnacle of product manufacture.

With photography forbidden inside the wing assembly facility, Airbus like any other at this level, guards its secrets, so all we witnessed was consigned to pleasant memory. Eventually it was time to bid farewell to Airbus and Shaun, our inside –man who led us on our Airbus Experience. Our chariot awaited, taking us not too far but to the other side of the airfield for some well-earned sustenance at the ‘Chocks Away Diner’ where a delicious meal was about to be enjoyed by all, overlooking the runway at Hawarden Airport.

As we waited for dinner to be served our man on look-out duty raised the alarm. Beluga Departing. In an ordered rush to the restaurant exit, the group made their way outside to the Eatery’s viewing terrace. It wasn’t long before Beluga No.2 had manoeuvred itself for departure. Turbofans spooled-up, the damp runway surface producing a cloud of moisture in its wake as another set of Airbus wings were on their way to the finally assembly at Toulouse.

Back inside the warmth of Chocks Away, fine food was enjoyed among great company and flowing conversation. A short time later our second Beluga was on approach. Dinner downed swiftly, it was outside to the restaurant’s viewing area again. One or two weren’t quite finished at the table and so dinner continued al-fresco for them, fork in one hand, plate in the other, dangling camera somewhere in-between.

Beluga No.1 (F-GSTA) swept into view from our left side over low industrial roof-tops. Touching down as carefully as sister ship Beluga No.2 had done so a couple of hours earlier. Our second Beluga catch of the day where one was truly appreciated. Ample viewing opportunity availed of as the aircraft back-tracked down the runway to its docking station. The arrival and dispatch of visiting Beluga working like a well-oiled machine.  To have viewed two of these incredible aircraft from a tiny fleet of five was a great achievement and placed our group in high-spirits.

Our next appointment was automotive in its theme. Still within the grounds of Hawarden Airport, and just beyond an ever watchful RAF Tornado fighter on display, ‘Cheshire Classic Cars’ opened its doors specially for us. Specialising in prodigious classic and sports cars, ‘Cheshire Classic Cars’ kindly agreed to permit a group-viewing of some of their current high-end vehicles on offer. The renowned company will not only source your sought-after supercar but close by in a separate fully equipped restoration workshop, can tailor your dream car to suit your very own particular taste. Several Aston Martin and Ferrari models on show during our visit were each priced above £750,000.

With some members of our travelling party having to be almost dragged away from the confines of the supercar showroom, we were back on the road with our twin coach convoy. Destination – Liverpool’s regenerated Docklands. The impressive result of this billion pound project see’s old restored buildings inter-mingling with contemporary modern designs. For visitors there is plenty to see and do, with time precious our plan was a visit to the ‘Museum of Liverpool’ and as museum’s go, this is one of the better ones, anywhere.

From the outside, the building makes no apologies for being stylishly cool. Like a beacon on the quay-side of this historic port, the limestone panels help bounce light and reflection, bringing movement to an already attention grabbing structure.

Designed by Danish architects 3XN and overseen by Manchester architectural practice AEW, the museum at a cost of €65m opened in 2011, claims to be the world’s leading city history museum showcasing social history and popular culture. The largest newly-built national museum in Britain for more than a century, the landmark building has won many awards, including the Council of Europe Museum Prize for 2013.

With something inside to interest everyone, genuinely, both local and visitor, for those whose choice of destination wouldn’t necessarily be “this type of thing”, you really should take a peek inside and surprise yourself.  What’s more there is no charge for admission – and who sang about ………‘the best things in life are free’ ………Oh that was a local band called The Beatles.

A hundred yards away from one of the huge glazed ends of the Museum of Liverpool and in front of the Royal Liver Building stands a life-sized bronze statue of the Fab Four themselves in their home town. A stroll around this appealing water-front reveals inlets and ‘basins’ with its delightful buildings and backdrops providing an abundance of charm and character, shaping the entire frontage, a must-visit for anyone touching down in Liverpool.

Ever clock-watching, for our group of cultural explorers it was a dash to the bus station for the double-decker to John Lennon Airport. Refreshments sampled, the group boarded aircraft to Dublin and Belfast, the former being the shortest if not one of the shortest flights on the Ryanair route map. Akin to a fairground ride, lasting not much longer than twenty odd minutes and we were on the ground in Dublin.

A fascinating day had come to an end. Airbus at Broughton had always been a source of immense interest and intrigue. It had been a privilege to tour this incredible facility and to enlighten a group of enthusiasts by sharing some of the secrets of A380 production, the world’s largest passenger airliner.

Our Beluga hunt produced two fine specimens – No.1 & No.2 – mission accomplished. On the horizon looms their replacement in the form of the new Airbus A330 Beluga XL.

A special thank you to Airbus UK – Broughton, Phil and Shaun, Airbus Management and staff involved, Chocks Away Diner, Cheshire Classic Cars, Museum of Liverpool and of course the group who attended – a pleasure.

Words by Aidan Nolan – Airliner Experience

Photos by Kevin Horgan

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