Rare birds: Mriya, Airbus Beluga and other unique aircraft modifications

A week ago, Airbus introduced  its new truck in the brand livery – Beluga XL (pictured above). At first it seems that the master of Photoshop tried, but the liner with such forms is quite real. The aircraft will not start operating until next year, but in any case it will be a great success for the spotter – it is planned to build only a few copies. We remembered other rare modifications of airliners.

Airbus Beluga

The French have perfectly guessed with the name of their unusual aircraft: it is that dimensions, that outwardly it really looks like a white whale. At the moment, there are only five such aircraft, all of which are operated by Airbus Transport International, a subsidiary of the manufacturer.

The Beluga model is needed purely for transporting parts to the rest of the Airbus aircraft. The network of suppliers is extensive and scattered throughout the world. For example, the wings of some models are made in the UK, the tails are in Spain and so on. All this is converted into a single liner at a factory in Toulouse, Hamburg or Tianjin (China). And this is not to mention a lot of smaller details, which are still bulky – so much so that they do not fit in the cargo hold of conventional cargo planes.


It would seem that the solution is obvious: if the part does not fit on the plane, it will have to be delivered by land or water. This is partially done . For example, for the transportation of the wing of the world’s largest passenger airliner Airbus A380, the manufacturer ordered three barges. Each carries only one wing at a time, and the process is not fast enough. With smaller aircraft, too, there are difficulties. As a result, in the early 1990s, Airbus introduced the Beluga model.

As a basis, the company took the A300. The cockpit of pilots was lowered a little, and the huge body was equipped with a powerful heating system, so that the sensitive parts were in a comfortable environment.

Exterior Beluga, unlike Concorde or Tu-144, can hardly be admired – the liner is frankly ugly. But this is the case when we thought about aesthetics in the last place: the main thing is that the components of other aircraft are placed in the cargo hold. After inflating the hull, the available volume of the luggage compartment increased to a fantastic 1,400 cubic meters. Here you can place 36 cars, 671 people or 7 elephants. The carrying capacity is not a record: about 47 tons. The task was to transport not so much heavy as large parts.

Liners Beluga make about 60 flights weekly: the Airbus plants, one of the world’s leading aircraft manufacturers, are always loaded. Since the beginning of the Beluga operation (1994), production volumes have increased about five times. The aircraft is placed A340 wings or part of the fuselage of the new A350 XWB, but this is not enough – for example, the two wings of the A350 are no longer fit. This pushed Airbus to build an even larger truck.

Increase the fuselage A300 was nowhere to go. Perhaps the ideal solution would be a special version based on the cargo A380, but it simply does not exist – potential customers (UPS and FedEx) are tired of moving the deadlines and refused to purchase. For its needs, Airbus took up the rework of the A330. The result is Beluga XL, which from mid-2019 will take delivery of parts for the A350 XWB. In the new body it will be possible to load two wings at once. In this case, the flagship A380 remains a headache for Airbus: apparently, the details for it will continue to be delivered on barges.

An-225 Mriya

In the 1970s, the USSR leadership volitional decision gave a green light to “our response to the shuttles.” The promising “Buran” as a result has appeared, we will tell so, slightly overestimated. He traveled to space only once – on November 15, 1988, and then under the control of electronics, without people on board. But the Union clearly had big plans for a spacecraft: not for nothing did a new plane lay for its transportation.


Talking about the colossal waste of budgetary money for the sake of rare Burana traffic is inappropriate: in the United States, for the transportation of shuttles, too, modified liners were used. But there were modified Boeing 747 (version SCA). The Union decided to turn the An-124 “Ruslan” into a new aircraft.

“Mriya” received two additional engines – all of them became six. The liner is considered to be the largest at a length of 84 meters, a height of 18.2 meters and a wingspan of 88.4 meters. According to the latest index, it is second only to the flying boat H-4 Hercules (97.5 meters) – another unique vessel, which also exists only in a single copy. However, the brainchild of the inventor Howard Hughes made only one flight. “Mriya” was more fortunate.

Despite the outstanding dimensions, the volume of the cargo compartment turned out to be even less than that of the Airbus Beluga – 1100 cubic meters. At the same time, the French aircraft is much smaller: the length is 56 meters, the wingspan is only 44.8 meters. However, in “Mriya” there is also a salon for freight forwarders accompanying the cargo.

The An-225 was ready after the Buran visited space. More ship to get out of the planet was not destined, but at the end of 1988 they did not know about it yet. The liner transported the Buran several times to exhibitions and an air show, and outside the fuselage – inside the ship simply did not fit.

“Mriya” is considered a record-holder in terms of carrying capacity: it took off with a cargo weighing 253.8 tons. The maximum takeoff weight is 640 tons, while the ship itself weighs 250 tons. There is not a more hardy aircraft yet. The rarest liner, as already noted, exists only in a single copy and is listed as cargo Antonov Airlines.

Boeing 747 Dreamlifter

Model 787 Dreamliner with extensive use of composite materials attracted airlines – the number of orders is approaching 1,500, the queue is lined up for years ahead. In order to less buyers languished in anticipation, Boeing made another new aircraft – specifically to deliver parts of the 787th.

It was not necessary to develop a cargo board from scratch: Boeing has the famous 747s, which were simply upgraded. In its ugliness 747-400 LCF, also Dreamlifter, constitutes a serious competition for Airbus Beluga. But, as in the case of the French liner, the appearance is absolutely not important.

Collect all Dreamliner in the city of Everett (USA). Details of the liner  are made all over the world, and they need to be brought promptly. For example, wings are made in Japan, horizontal stabilizers in Italy, external doors in France. According to Boeing, with the advent of Dreamlifter, it was possible to accelerate the delivery of some components 30 times, reducing the time from one month to one day.

The company was in such a hurry with the commissioning of the Dreamlifter in order to speed up the production of the Dreamliner, which did not even paint the cargo board – for some time the aircraft was transporting the details for the passenger liner in the “bare” form.

The re-equipped Boeing 747 received an impressive cargo compartment volume of 1,840 cubic meters. According to other indicators, Dreamlifter is much inferior to Mriya: it can take only 113 tons of cargo, takeoff mass is almost two times less – 364 tons.

VM-T Atlant

To its appearance, “Atlant” is obliged to all the same “Buran” and the carrier rocket “Energia”. In the late 1970s, when the shuttle shuttle project was approved, the question arose about transporting all the necessary parts to the Baikonur cosmodrome. At that time, there was still no AN-124 “Ruslan”, much less “Mriya.”

Various options for delivering components were put forward, including suspension of cargo for two helicopters. This option was considered too dangerous: in case of bad weather, a catastrophe could occur. The Soviet space program was saved by the aircraft designer Vladimir Myasishchev.

As a solution, he proposed to re-equip the 3M bomber, which had long been exploited by the Soviet Air Force. The plane of Myasischev’s design bureau was well suited to a new task: it is quite heavy lifting and at the same time it has excellent aerodynamics – even the “Buran” fixed on the outside of the fuselage will not seriously interfere with the flight. The big ranks liked the idea.

For the new version, engineers had to change tail fins – “Atlant” received two rectangular keels. The liner could take a cargo weighing about 40 tons, takeoff weight was 210 tons. The empty VM-T weighed 74.5 tons.


Of the three aircraft, one was intended for testing, and the remaining two were already used to deliver Buranov and other overall equipment to the spaceport. In total, BM-T carried out about 150 flights. In 1989, when the “Mriya” appeared, from “Atlanta” they refused.


Transport IL-76 is difficult to call a unique liner, but the MDK version is an exception. It is represented only by three copies. The aircraft is  used for cosmonaut training and entertainment for tourists.


IL-76 MDK is designed to provide weightlessness in the cabin – just like in the amazing clip of the OK Go group (by the way, they and other video are fantastic on the idea):

During the flight, the aircraft first rises to a height of 6,000 meters, then rises the nose by 45 degrees and climbs to 9,000 meters for about 15 seconds. During this time, passengers with strong nerves and stomachs experience an overload of 2g. Further, the crew aligns the liner, reduces the thrust of the engines to the minimum possible value, and the IL-76 MDK flies already by inertia. At this moment, gravity becomes zero. After the pilots tilt the steering wheel away from themselves, and the plane rushes to the ground. Then it is leveled, increases the thrust of the engines and prepares for the next rise.

A similar modification, specifically to achieve conditions of weightlessness, made the American Zero Gravity Corporation with the bought Boeing 727-200. The plane is also used for tourist flights.

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