A Starship in the Wild

Posted by in Technology

The Starship. It’s been one of my favorite aircraft ever since I first saw it on the pages of Flying as a kid. The very name conjures up a sense of possibility and exploration, as though the very atmosphere would be unable to contain it.

I happened upon one the other day as we taxied out to depart from Vail, Colorado in the Gulfstream. As is typical on a weekend day, the Eagle County Airport was abuzz with traffic, so we sat at the end of the runway cooling our heels while inbound aircraft made their approach. Nothing to do but admire the rare animal idling in front of us, those five-bladed McCauley props turning as the heat plumes flowed from the PT-6A-67 exhaust stacks.

Delays are normally unwelcome.  But when you're sitting behind a Starship, it's not so bad.

Delays are normally unwelcome. But when you’re sitting behind a Starship, it’s not so bad.

It’s always a bit of a shock actually seeing one in the wild because Raytheon ceased supporting the airplane more than a decade ago, even going so far as to buy back and retire as many of the remaining airframes as they possibly could in exchange deals for new Premier jets.

I wrote about the Starship a decade ago and compared it with the Concorde as the latter was being retired. I suppose it’s apropos to ponder the futuristic-yet-retired Beech creation now that Beechcraft itself is being absorbed by Textron.

The Starship was every bit as futuristic as the Concorde. Developed in the early 1980′s, it was designed to replace the most successful business turboprop in history, the King Air.

Starship was revolutionary because it the airframe was made of composites like carbon fiber. Composites are lighter and stronger than aluminum, but they are more complex to manufacture and they haven’t been around that long. Consequently, the FAA was very conservative and required a lot of extra testing and data for certification. It was also difficult and very labor intensive to manufacture, and many of Raytheon’s subcontractors missed critical deadlines. Raytheon itself experienced many delays as it learned to work with resins, adhesives, sealants, and other composite materials.

Eventually the bugs were worked out, but the damage had been done. Only 53 Starships were built. And of those, only a small handful were ever sold. Most have remained in Raytheon’s inventory for more than a decade and have been used to supply replacement parts for the existing fleet.

Starship was also one of the very first airplanes to be designed and built using a computer system. Called CATIA, this same system was used to create the Boeing 777.

The storied Beech name reaches back more than eighty years. The company developed and built some of the longest-lived products in the history of aviation. Although they’re only built sparingly these days, Bonanzas have been manufactured since 1947, and the relatively young King Air line began in 1964 — a paltry half-century ago.

Despite the firm’s financial difficulties, Beech at least makes something tangible. Beyond the cache and history of the Beechcraft name, it has facilities, production lines, patents, type certificates, intellectual property, and a comparatively skilled work force. To me, it simple generates far more excitement than, say, the high-flying Twitter, which has a market cap of $35 billion but has never turned a profit or built anything that makes the pulse race the way an aircraft can.

Happier times for Beech: the rollout of the first Starship.  If only they'd know how short the "future" would be...

Happier times for Beech: the rollout of the first Starship. If only they’d know how short the “future” would be…

When I was growing up, Beech/Raytheon represented some of the most exciting and cutting-edge stuff in the world of flying. I suppose that’s what I was truly reminded of when we found ourselves holding behind this beauty.

It also occurred to me that the jet I was flying — a Gulfstream IV — celebrated its maiden flight only a few months before the Starship. How different their fates have been! The G-IV was wildly successful and is still in production while the promising composite turboprop never really got off the ground. It’s worth noting that a similar business aircraft, the Piaggio Avanti, also made its first flight in the mid-1980s and is still being built. And why not? It achieves nearly 400 knots at a 40% fuel savings over comparable jets.

It must be painful for those who worked on the Starship project to know that airplanes like the Waco YMF-5 and Great Lakes biplanes — 1920′s tube-and-fabric technology — are still being built and sold while the sleek, modern ship they labored over is more or less relegated to photographs and museums. Aviation: it’s a strange business.