These are the strangest-looking airplanes in the world, and there’s about to be a bunch more of them

A whole lot of room inside.
A whole lot of room inside.
Image: Airbus
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Since its first flight in 1994, the Airbus “Beluga”—named for its white, distended body—has been one of the strangest-looking things in the sky.

It looks even stranger on terra firma, when its unconventional “doors” are flipped open to accommodate the oversize cargo on its manifest.

Airbus Beluga.
Beluga (plane).
Image: Airbus
Beluga whale.
Beluga (whale).
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Airbus currently maintains five of the behemoth cargo-transport planes. But on Monday, the French aircraft manufacturer announced it will double the size of its fleet, with the first of five new Belugas scheduled to go airborne in mid-2019.

The Beluga’s bizarre design, inflated design has a purpose. Airbus’ production centers are distributed across Europe, and sometimes they need to transport very big airplane parts from one place to another.

And how do you transport parts of a big airplane? You put them in a bigger airplane, of course, with gaping mouths that look as if they could swallow another airplane whole. In other words, a Beluga.

MSN 6101 First NEO fuselage loading into Beluga from HAM to TLS
Image: Airbus

Why build more of these beasts? It’s part of an effort by Airbus to ramp up production of its new flagship commercial jet, the A350 XWB. Previously, the company had announced a program to double the Beluga fleet’s total annual flight hours from 5,000 to 10,000 by 2017. The new fleet will further increase use of the cargo planes.

Here are two more shots of the massive aircraft:

A350 first wing despatch at Broughton. Pictured: wing being transported into Beluga
Image: Airbus
Image: Airbus