One of the strangest-looking yet important planes ever created has reached its 20th birthday — the Airbus "Beluga" transport plane. The Beluga is a highly modified Airbus A300, and named for its resemblance to the Beluga Whale. Airbus has marked the occasion with a video about the plane.

In its early days, Airbus used modified and obsolete 1940s-vintage transport planes which were built by its biggest competitor, Boeing. That had to be a little bit embarrassing. Boeing even joked that "every Airbus is delivered on the wings of a Boeing." The modified Boeing Stratocruisers were nicknamed "Super Guppies." Super Guppies were also used by NASA to ferry rocket parts to their final assembly prior to launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Airbus' original "Super Guppy" by I wish I was flying on Flickr (CC Commercial License)

Officially named the Airbus A300-600ST, (the ST for Super Transporter) this workhorse aircraft is second only to the Antonov An-225 in terms of cargo capacity by volume. Its lifting capability is only 47 tons, however. Its mission is to carry aircraft components, such as completed fuselage sections and wings from Airbus factories around Europe to final assembly factories in Toulouse and Hamburg. Five Belugas are flying for Airbus. Their size limits them from transporting pieces of the A380, which is the world's largest passenger jet. However, Flight Global says Airbus may be evaluating an A330 version of the Beluga, based on manufacturing schematics for a new Beluga line station (mentioned in the video above).

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Boeing 747-LCF Dreamlifter, by Cory Barnes on Flickr (CC Commercial License)

Boeing has its own modified beast-of-burden aircraft, the 747-LCF (Large Cargo Freighter) also known as the Dreamlifter. Boeing's fleet of four modified 747-400s were built specifically to transport 787 Dreamliner (see what they did there?) sections. Development and manufacturing of the Dreamliner is a truly global initiative for Boeing, one that some would say led to the program's delays. But regardless, it's remarkable that manufacturers can modify planes to meet their own needs. These planes may not be aerodynamically efficient, but they get the job done a lot faster than having to ship plane pieces over land or sea.