The Beechcraft Starship has been the center of discussion for many years since it was first produced in 1983 and presented as the replacement of the King Air 200, the top executive aircraft produced by Beechcraft and its parent company at that time, Raytheon.
Considered by many as an aircraft ahead of its time, the Beechcraft Starship was designed by the owner of Scaled composites, Burt Rutan. It featured a canard-like revolutionary design, an all-glass cockpit, and a fully composite construction which made it the first composite business class aircraft to get FAA certification. Composite materials used in the construction included carbon graphite, Kevlar, and E-glass.
So, why has the Beech Starship remained in the center of discussions for many years? What has generated so much debate around it? Well, mainly the fact that it was not financially successful, a fact that has bewildered many people in the aviation world.
Are you ready to learn more about the Beechcraft Starship, why it failed, and what is the present of this innovative aircraft? Keep reading as we give you the details so you can draw your own conclusions.
We must start with an overview of the company behind this iconic business aircraft. The name Beechcraft was first used as the main brand of a subsidiary company called Beech Aircraft Corporation.
The company was created in the United States as a manufacturer in the general aviation industry, covering a range of light single-engine aircraft and twin-engined turboprop transports, business jets, and military trainers.
In 1980, the company was acquired by Raytheon Technologies Corporation, a parent organization that created Hawker Beechcraft in 1994 by merging its Beech Aircraft Corporation and Raytheon Corporate Jets units.
After being sold to a consortium that involved The Goldman Sachs Group, the company suffered a financial crisis and all the assets were overtaken by Textron Aviation, the parent company of Beech’s historical cross-town Wichita rival, Cessna Aircraft Company. The brand is still owned by Textron.
Composite business class aircraft
Now that we know the brand better, it is time to continue speaking about their composite business class aircraft, the Beech Starship.
Beech started the starship program in 1979 by designing what would be an aircraft with a large cabin like the one in the King Air, but one that could have distinct features such as:
Improved structural stability
Faster and quieter flight
Later, in 1982 they passed the program to Scaled Composites after agreeing to a contract that would see the composite specialized company continue with the project until they could start with production.
Why was the Beechcraft Starship fail?
Scaled Composites moved on by building an 85% scale POC plane within 9 months, and they managed to complete 100 flight test hours within 35 days.
It is important to note that this concept aircraft was a challenge because the composite industry was still in its early life, so tooling and other elements of the manufacturing process added complexity and technical difficulties to the project.
However, commercial failure is not attributed to the added complexity or the technical difficulties. Most experts believe the main reason was bad timing.
Composite construction and glass cockpit
Two of the main features of the Starship are its composite construction and all-glass cockpit. However, these are not the only Starship features that make it a revolutionary aircraft.
The composite structure that provided the benefits of being lightweight and strong, corrosion-resistant and quieter was accompanied by a design that used pusher propellers by moving the turboprop engines to the rear, another feature that would reduce the noise in the cabin. In general, the composite materials made it much quieter than aircraft with aluminum airframes.
To gain FAA certification, both the structure and the rear twin pusher turboprop design had to go through a lot of testing and scrutiny. Yet, it eventually got certified and became the first civilian aircraft with FAA certification that had this type of design and construction.
But those were not the only aspects where the Starship was a pioneer. Embracing the computer-age technological developments, old gas gauges did not have a place in this production aircraft. It was its glass cockpit that became the first certified avionics of its type.
Although with all risks calculated, there were too many first times for prospective Starship owners. Of course, many of them decided to wait and see the forward wing “canard design” perform before taking the risk of getting one themselves. As a result, only a few of the aircraft were sold at the beginning.
Moreover, business aviation was under pressure due to the 1989 recession, adding up to the financial difficulties.
However, the result could have been different if not for Raytheon’s catastrophic decision of canceling production. According to Starship NC-51 owner, Robert Scherer, “by 1995, the economy had improved and the industry had begun to recognize the advantages of composite structure and all-glass cockpits.
If Raytheon had focused on promoting the Starship’s design and touting its now proven safety record, it would have been perfectly positioned to excel.”
How many Beechcraft Starships were built?
There were only 53 of these aircraft built. Yet, very few were sold and the remaining Starships were leased by Raytheon themselves.
It seems amazing that it was difficult to sell even such a small number of them, but there are two main aspects to consider here, apart from the ones mentioned above.
First, the price tag on the Starship was $3.9 million for the original 2000 model and $4.7 million for the subsequent 2000A.
Then, in a crazy effort to sell more, Raytheon offered free maintenance to all owners, which resulted in increased costs for the company since extensive maintenance was constantly requested, even if not necessary. What’s worse, the constant maintenance work gave prospective buyers the impression that the aircraft was unreliable.
Finally, Beech decided it was not worth the money and effort, so they decommissioned the whole fleet.
How many Beechcraft Starships are still flying?
Out of the 53 mentioned above, there are only 5 which belong to private owners, according to Robert Scherer. However, according to D Magazine, there are only 4. These are the ones that are still flying.
While the majority of Starships were dismantled or destroyed after decommissioning by Raytheon, there are only 24 confirmed in such status. Others can be found in museums, in colleges, and working as composite materials testing items.
What are the main specifications of the Starship?
Crew: 1 or 2
Length: 46 ft 1 in (14.05 m)
Wingspan: 54 ft 5.70 in (16.6 m)
Height: 12 ft 1.3 in (3.94 m)
Wing area: 281 sq ft (26.1 m2)
Empty weight: 10,085 lb (4,574 kg) standard empty weight
Gross weight: 15,010 lb (6,808 kg) max ramp weight
Knowing that the whole Starship fleet was decommissioned, and only a few are in active service, no one would expect to find anything new about it. But nothing is farther from the truth.
The fact is that the Starship keeps getting attention thanks to its amazing carbon-fiber airframe design and many want to see it stay in the air. For example, in 2020, Aerospace Quality Research and Development (AQRD) designed and developed an installation package to enable the Beechcraft Starship to comply with ADS-B Out requirements. The company said, “This is a significant milestone for the Beechcraft Starship, as it will ensure that the Starship will be shared and enjoyed for decades to come.”
Moreover, Raj Narayanan, the founder of AQRD and owner of two Starships, has been visiting what is called the Beech Party, an annual event that takes place in Tullahoma, Tennessee. He always goes there on a Starship and everyone enjoys it.
His brother said about the Starship “It’s the best marketing that we have; they’re even included in our logo.” “Imagine rolling up to a client meeting and stepping out of a plane that hasn’t been manufactured in almost three decades. It is a conversation starter for us, for sure.”
The company updated the cockpits of the Starship with modern technology to keep it flight-worthy in a clear sign that they consider it an essential piece of their business. With Mr. Scherer’s Starship, they make three, almost the current world fleet.
These three Starships are so famous that two of them have been featured in important shows, one on The History Channel where Mr. Sherer was interviewed, and the one owned by Raj Narayanan in an Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) documentary.
The legacy of the Starship should remain intact thanks to the devotion of its owners. We believe more will be said about this wonderful machine in years to come. Perhaps, it will also serve as an example of what should be avoided, and what could become a reality for future developments in the aviation industry.
What is the general opinion Beechcraft Starship in the aviation community?
There are a myriad of opinions regarding this concept aircraft. Some aviation enthusiasts claim that the Starship was a high-tech, futuristic marvel of aircraft engineering that was simply too far ahead of its time. They often go out of their way and travel long distances to simply observe the plane in a museum and firmly stand in support of its development.
On the other hand, some say it was a complete and utter disaster in every aspect. This side of the community argue that the money spent designing, developing and testing the Starship should have gone towards improving and upgrading conventional turboprops.
An example of a successful project that should have been invested in is the Beech King Air 350. A portion of the aviation community insists that if the Starship hadn’t been released into the market, we would have a cheaper, larger, and a more fuel-efficient aircraft.
Beechcraft Starship was irrefutably a grandiose project of the 1980s that was started and released under the wrong circumstances. Regardless of how it turned out, the aircraft made a deep impression in the memory of the aviation community for decades since the conception of the conception.
But now that we have discussed all the details of the Starship, let’s look at some frequently asked questions.
Can you still buy a Beechcraft Starship?
There are 5 privately owned airworthy Starships in the US and Europe, one of them might still go up for sale. So, technically, the answer to this question is yes.
However, since it is such a rare aircraft, it is unlikely that private owners will easily part with such a prized possession.
Why did the project Starship fail?
There were three major factors that contributed to an untimely demise of the project: a design that might have been too futuristic for the time, an economic recession and a shocking price tag.
Are there similar planes to Beech Starship?
A plane comparable to the Beechcraft Starship is the Piaggio Avanti. These aircraft are two of the 1980s new-generation crafts, both quite similar in design, mounted with canards and engines installed on the wings. If you have been looking to buy a Starship, you could easily look into an Avanti as they are more readily available.
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Jet pilot @NASA
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