When one examines a failure of such monumental scale as the Beech Starship program, the inevitable question is, “Why did they do that?” As in almost every instance where things go badly wrong, it was a series of decisions made under shifting circumstances that led to the ultimate disaster.
To understand the roots of the Starship program decisions, we must think back to the early 1980s when they were made. Beech had been acquired from the founders by Raytheon, a leader in high tech of the day. A recession — that hit general aviation particularly hard — cast a pall over the future. And so did memories of the crushing oil embargos of the 1970s. Serious and knowledgeable people predicted the world would run out of oil, not just run out of cheap oil.
Beech dominated the turboprop market with its King Air family. In fact, other makers of turboprop twins had dropped production, or gone out of business entirely. We could not then predict the steady and impressive gains turbofan engines would make in fuel efficiency so the turboprop held important advantages in an oil worried world.
That was the setup for the decision makers at Raytheon. The thinking went something like, “Our company, Beech, dominates the turboprop market. Turboprops hold a vital fuel efficiency edge. Ergo what we need is an advanced turboprop to cement our market position for decades to come.”
When an aviation decision maker goes looking for great leaps forward there is always somebody with an unproven idea ready to fulfill their dreams. In the early 1980s one of the most talked about bits of aviation magic looming on the horizon was composite construction. Using carbon fiber reinforced plastic could cut airframe weight by huge amounts, proponents claimed. And we all know that a lightweight airplane is everything good. It’s faster, carries more, and is more fuel efficient.
And composites seemed to be at least somewhat proven. I remember that Gulfstream made a composite rudder for its jet and saved 200 pounds. If you can save that much on a rudder, think how light an airframe built entirely from composites would be. The mind boggles.
The other propeller airplane configuration that always tantalized, and even could be proven in wind tunnels, was mounting the engines on the rear as pushers. A pusher prop produces more thrust on the same power, and because the props are aft of the cabin, the passengers experience jet-like smoothness and quiet.
Once the Raytheon decision makers bought into the incredible weight savings promise of composites, and the benefits of the pusher propellers, the other design decisions — most of which turned out to be awful — cascaded down on them.
The Starship could have been designed with a conventional wing and tail, much like its contemporary, the Piaggio Avanti, was. But the futuristic look of Burt Rutan’s canard creations was so exciting. Burt’s “Eze” homebuilt designs were popular, looked fast, and were. The fact that an Eze empty CG is so far aft that the empty airplane can’t even sit on its nose gear without tipping over backward didn’t seem to register with Raytheon.
To get that futuristic look and make the airplane practical in terms of CG location the Starship wing needed a large amount of sweep. Wing sweep looks fast, and does reduce drag above critical Mach that is usually faster than Mach .70, but at turboprop speeds sweep adds headaches and penalties with no benefits. A swept wing is less structurally efficient, which means it’s heavier than a straight wing. And sweep degrades stability, particularly in yaw-roll coupling.
Some believe a forward wing (canard) instead of a conventional horizontal tail is more efficient because it always lifts while the normal tail produces balancing downforce. But because it’s always lifting the forward wing must always stall before the main wing so the nose will pitch down making recovery possible. But to have enough lift at low speeds for adequate pitch control with wing flaps extended, the Starship forward wing had to be too big to not stall at higher airspeeds. The solution was a mechanism that would sweep, and unsweep the forward wing.
Because the forward wing sweep was obviously critical to airplane performance and stall behavior, lots of monitors and backup equipment were required. The result was more weight and complexity with not much, if anything, in the way of measurable performance benefit.
The Starship also had the unfortunate timing of being caught between avionics technological developments. Electronic flight instrument systems (EFIS) were in service, but the displays were actually little more than TV tube pictures of conventional instruments. It was not possible to combine all six primary flight instruments into a single display. But, to continue with the airplane of the future theme, the Starship designers opted for an EFIS display of every individual cockpit instrument. There were 16, as I recall, individual TV tubes in the instrument panel burning amps and pumping out gobs of heat. The avionics cooling fans were an absolutely critical item.
If you lived through that time you’ll remember the aviation world being divided on the Starship. Not necessarily evenly, but divided. One camp believed that airplane would deliver its promise of 400 mph cruise speed, jet level of vibration and quiet, and range pushing out close to 2,000 miles. The other camp believed a plastic airplane couldn’t be built and certified, and the strange configuration would not work, and the whole program would flop.
I remember one evening sitting in a Wichita bar with Mike Potts, who worked in Beech PR at the time — imagine that, a writer and PR guy in a bar — discussing the Starship’s future. In a stroke of brilliance, or maybe it was gin, we realized there was a third possible outcome. What if the Starship is certified and built, but just doesn’t do anything well, and certainly not better than other airplanes.
And that’s exactly what happened.
It didn’t take long to learn that composite construction could not deliver the promised weight savings. As the Starship empty weight soared, the whole program would have collapsed except for a new FAA certification program called commuter category. The “small” airplane category the Starship was launched under maxes out at 12,500 pounds takeoff weight. In exchange for more stringent structure and performance requirements the commuter category allows takeoff weight to go higher. Those commuter category requirements undoubtedly added even more weight but did allow the program to continue. The eventual maximum ramp weight of the Starship topped 15,000 pounds.
More than the usual amount of tweaks and mods were required to bring the Starship flying qualities in line with the rules, but Beech persevered. In the end the Starship was the most stable airplane I have ever flown. I didn’t believe an airplane could be too stable, but the Starship is. It plows through bumps like it’s on rails. And the only way to initiate a reasonable roll rate is to stomp the rudder hard as you turn the wheel. Stability is great, but stability is the antithesis of low drag. Because of that, the big miss on weight, and no realized efficiencies from the forward wing configuration, the Starship missed all of its performance goals, by a lot.
Beech built 53 Starships and only a handful were sold. The rest were leased because almost nobody wanted to sign on for an open-ended conventional ownership. In the end Beech tried to buy back all of the Starships to put a couple in museums and destroy the rest to end the cost of supporting the tiny but complex fleet. I was invited to fly a Starship on its final flight into McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita where it would go on display at the air museum there. It was fun to make that final flight, and to buzz the runway a few feet high at red line airspeed. But I couldn’t help thinking what could have, and should have, been instead of the Starship.
The Starship disaster is unusual on the long list of new airplane failures. Most importantly it did get built. Most paper airplanes never fly, and certainly almost none are certified and produced. The other big difference is that no order holder lost their deposits on the Starship. Raytheon stockholders didn’t do so well, but Beech didn’t screw the aviation public.
But the Starship was a disaster for all of aviation in terms of lost opportunity. The billion bucks — closer to two billion in today’s dollars — that Raytheon spent going down the wrong technology paths could have been, and should have been, spent on an improved conventional turboprop. Today’s King Air 350 is a terrific airplane, and a best seller, but if that billion dollars had gone into building on the King Air instead of chasing a dream we would have an airplane now that is several inches larger in cabin section, more fuel efficient because of a newer wing design, and less costly to maintain because of modern system design and materials use.
I cringe still when the Starship is described by so many as high-tech, and futuristic. It was a failure in every respect. Raytheon shot for the moon and ended up with an exotic looking airplane that didn’t do anything as well as airplanes already there, and costing much less. And all of aviation was robbed of the really terrific airplane that a billion dollars could have created.
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Very interesting article. Last year I flew as a passenger on the Piaggio P180 Avanti II, the plane than had been successfull where the Starship failed. It’s still a beautiful futuristic turboprop capable of flying at 400 knots at FL 410 in a quiet cabin. A nice turboprop with almost jet performances. And with a jet price. So why should you buy a turboprop when you can get a jet for the same ammount of money? I think that the Piaggio could have a greater success if it could have a more affordable cost.
Mac, did you fly the Avanti? What do you think of this plane?
Yes. I flew the P180 several times, including in Italy on two trips before it was certified.
What I remember from those prototype flights was the frisky flying qualities. I was flying with a Piaggio experimental test pilot–trained at Pax River–and was rolling the airplane from 60 degrees to 60 degrees to time the roll rate. He said “why not just go all the way round.” So I did. Don’t remember the roll rate, but the roll was very smooth, little nose drop, and easy to do. He said “I think we need to damp down the response for the corporate crowd.”
He was right, and they did.
BTW. The P180 did meet its speed projections. Weight, as usual, was an issue so it missed on range, and runway required, but overall a pretty successful original design.
Thank you, Mac. A friend of mine flies P180s used by ENAV to check ILS, VOR and instrumental procedures and is very happy with this ship. Flying in the back is just like flying on a little bizjet, not on a noisy turboprop. But in Italy the Avanti is used mainly by the Air Force, Police, Carabinieri, Navy, Coast Guard, even the intellicence services. State organisations somehow forced to buy Italian. Anyway, as you know, now Piaggio Aerospace is still in Italy, but it’s owned by the government of Abu Dhabi.
Thanks for continuing to write here. I’ve always enjoyed your perspective.
A lot of the blame on the weight gain goes to the FAA in insisting on additional safety margins in the construction. And a lot of the blame goes to Beech, as you pointed out, for overreaching the needs of the market. Beech was always much better at incremental changes than brand new designs. In a lot of ways, Mrs. Beech and Frank Hedrick saw to that.
I didn’ realize that the Starship was such a blunder, or that
anyone disliked it so much! Historically, how many other aircraft have been built that ended up being colossal failures? Several hundred? I would still like to fly both a Starship and one of my all time favorites, a King Air.
But for now, I’ll settle for my not-so-popular-because-it’s-heavier-and-not-as-fast-as-the-competition-but-way-more-comfortable-and-better-looking Rockwell Commander.
Which is another airplane, like the Starship,that could perhaps be built better today (with better business decisions and today’s technology). Wouldn’t you agree?
P.S., love reading your work Mac!
Why did Starship fail? Why did the Piaggio 180 succeed? Piaggio has sold 225 versions of the 180, currently in the 3rd generation with the EVO. Max cruise of 402 kts and max range with four paxs of 1700 nm, with a larger interior than any Cessna CJ and a working bathroom, what’s not to like? Fuel burn is about half the turbofan competition. 3900 ft balanced field length. Max fuel and a 1200 pound payload? Out the door price is currently running about $7.7 million with lots of bells and whistles, and a beautiful leather interior.
The P-180 is extremely noisy sounding like an oversize mosquito. I used to work under the final approach to a major airport and you could hear one coming in 2 miles before it got there. Distinctly annoying buzzing sound.
That was a good topic. Of course there is much more to the Starship attempt than what you can describe in a short article; the personalities involved come to mind. I think Beech did get some good technology experience out of it but probably not a billion dollars worth.
Another factor is that, with regard to selling an unusual configuration in the corporate market, a conservative design has an advantage. Corporations tend to be pretty conservative and don’t necessarily want a stand out airplane sitting on the ramp with their name on it. Both the Starship and the Piaggio fall in that category.
So glad to see you writing Mac!!! I’ve been a fan of yours for as long as I remember reading your work at your prior aviation gigs! Best in the New Year!
What Donnie said. You lucky dog ;)
Mac, I remember when a friend, a Beech salesman, came through Columbus, OH, where I was based as a corporate pilot in the 80’s. He was selling another Beech offering; a Beechjet, if I remember correctly. He didn’t have too many good things to say about the Starship. My remark to him was that there was no external baggage access. The pilot had to haul bags up the airstair, down the aisle to the rear of the airplane(and in the process bumping all that expensive leather on each side) and over the back seat, as in a Learjet. That was a deal breaker for me. The other thing that I heard was that the cabin noise level was a King Air in reverse (I flew the King Air 200); quiet for the pilots up front, but noisy for the passengers, sitting back where those props were reverberating off the inverted vertical stab. Love your writing. Retirement? Or just a change in venue?
Thanks for the kind comments, Dennis. And you’re right about the cabin sound level in the Starship. It wasn’t as quiet as expected, and certainly not on par with a jet. A theory is that the rigid composite structure is more efficient in transmitting sound. Makes sense to me. In a conventional metal airframe there are many lap joints in the skin and other spots where components are fastened. Even with tight rivet work those joints can’t pass on the sound waves as well as the single layer of graphite or fiberglass can.
If you’ve ever been below in a fiberglass boat and a wooden boat powering into a chop you know what I’m talking about.
This is not true. The Starship is probably the quietest turboprop ever built. It’s so quiet, you can hear the Hobbs meter ticking off tenths of an hour. In the cabin, passengers can converse without raising their voices. The low noise levels and lack of vibration outshine the King Air by a wide margin. The quiet factor is something everybody notices, except Mac.
Robert Scherer – Owner/Pilot, Starship NC-51
Robert, I regularly see your Starship out in a few of the airports I regularly fly out of. Glad to see someone keeping such a beauty alive!
Robert is right, I owned NC41 the one you flew to the Kansas State Air Museum in 2003. I had the Starship for 7 years, prior to the starship I had a B200 King Air and after the starship I had a New King Air 350 also with the active noise suppression system. Both King Air’s had noisier cabins than Starship. I also have friends that owned Hawkers, Gulfstreams, Citations and Falcons they were all amazed at the extremely low cabin noise level that rivaled their planes.
Ex owner of NC41 Tim Flynn
I think hindsight is always 20/20. Without trying something new, how would we advance the state of the art? Succeed or fail, I admire that they tried.
Trying new things can be fun and once in awhile can advance a technology. A walk around Oshkosh shows you that almost any contraption with a wing and a CG in a somewhat reasonable location can get off the ground.
A walk around an FBO, or better still and airline terminal, shows you what really works in terms of doing what owners want and keeping the builder in business. And those airplanes all look pretty much the same. But they are not. The business jets and airliners of today are far advanced over what was available 25 years ago, but the configurations and outward appearance are little changed. Cars still have four wheels, boats are pointy in the front, and golf balls are still round. Boring, but that’s what works.
The Starship is a very visible example of what happens when faith is permitted to overrule reason.
I agree, Tom. The way I like to think of airplanes like the Starship, or the Concorde, or the Space Shuttle, is that they are a triumph of the possible over the practical.
If the FAA had allowed the Starship to be built as Burt Rutan had designed her, she would have blown away the King Air in every way. It would have been a coast to coast airplane. But even with the 3,000 lb FAA mandated weight increase (which Mac failed to mention), the Starship is far superior to the noisy, vibration ridden King Air.
Robert Scherer – Owner/Pilot, Starship NC-51
I used the Starship as my design final project back when drafting was still part of Aero Engineering curriculum.
It was a magical design, and I enjoyed the project immensely….and still have that sheet of mylar stashed somewhere.
The vision behind the Starship is to be celebrated. Without the vision of pioneers we would not be where we are in aviation today. And this comes from a guy who has circled terrorists flying a King Air!
Never be afraid to fail.
Burt Rutan never, ever, certified anything according to the FARs. Aerospace engineers like myself who actually worked for the General Aviation manufacturers grew awfully tired of hearing “Rutan this, Rutan that…” when in fact he studiously avoided anything that would run into actual FARs for certified aircraft. None of his designs that actually flew would make it past the certification process, a fact that his fans conveniently choose to ignore. While the Starship was a fatally-flawed program for a lot of different reasons, at least Beech got it certified. Not Rutan, but Beech.
Rutan certainly had some good ideas, but he never, ever, certified anything for commercial production, at least not in the General Aviation world. His designs would not meet FAR Part 23 or 25, and instead of changing his designs to meet certification and safety requirements, he offered his usual lip service about the FAA and design criteria. Back then we prided ourselves on safety and professionalism, and we worked with the FAA on design certification requirements. Rutan did nothing but bash that process rather than participate in it as he should have. He could have brought a lot of positive ideas to the table and refused.
As a former Beech Aircraft Engineer, I can tell you that Beech designed the Starship, all Rutan did was take the Beech design and manufacture a reduced-scale prototype Starship used for marketing justification purposes and a bit of proof-of-concept flight testing. I did not work on the Starship, I was off on other projects such as the 38P, the King Air F90, and the Beech 1200 Commuter Airliner, all developed around the same time.
The STARSHIP was a marketing disaster because the FAA kept changing the certification fatigue requirements. It ended up being built like a tank. I personally saw one that landed at ICT and had a nose wheel fail. Less than 2 hours later it was flown back across town for repairs at the factory. The gear doors were not destroyed. The gear was locked down with some braces on the actuator links on the nose wheel.
Beech did not know how to market new airplanes. Beech had been developing te SKIPPER BE-77 for a decade but Piper put a cheap copy called the TOMAHAWK on the market first and delivered 1,000 before Beech rolled out a production SKIPPER.
Back to the STARSHIP— Pilots don’t buy airplanes, CEOs buy airplanes and the STARSHIP didn’t look tradational, what a CEO or Chairman would spend a few million dollars buying.
Beech should have taken my advice and donated three STARSHIPS to George Lucas for STAR WARS and then they would have been hot tickets.
The avionics were 25 years ahead of the technology. The GARMIN G1000 would be great in STARSHIP.
I never got the type rating, just the BEECHJET and 300 King Air and 1900 Airliner.
The FAA might understand that carbon fiber is stronger than the traditional materials and gets stronger with age if the aerodynamics were applied to a 21st Century STARSHIP.
You’re right. The Starship, and other composite airplanes that have been certified, are stronger than they probably need to be. But the problem is not the FAA. It is the possibility of voids or other flaws in the composite layup. The manufactured airframe must meet all load requirements with all of the possible undetectable poor bonds or other flaws that can occur. The result is more material is added to compensate for what could have gone wrong during the build.
I could name, but won’t, several instances were bonded structure in both fixed wing and helicopters didn’t live up to test results when the aircraft went into actual production. A close look at a rivet can tell you it’s condition. A close look at a composite structure tells you nothing about what’s going on below the surface.
IF I win the lottery I’ll buy a Piaggio and give it the proper paint job. A catfish on the bud.
Why did you fail to mention that because the Starship was the first carbon fiber aircraft certificated by the FAA, they made Beech add 3,000 pounds of additional carbon fiber to make the airplane twice as strong as designed? Why did you fail to mention that the Starship is the strongest airplane ever built because of it? More importantly, why did you fail to consider how the airplane would perform if it were designed to Burt Rutan’s original design? With all due respect, this article is sloppy, biased and poorly researched. The word luddite comes to mind.
Robert Scherer – Owner/Pilot, Starship NC-51
Thanks Mac. I too have always enjoyed your writing. As a current owner of a Beech V35 and past owner of a Beech B55, I have always been impressed (as have others) by the quality of the Beech product. Seems like they just did not know when to “fold em” in this case – but it appears that their goal was to produce a quality product and they just got too deep in the project to admit the obvious. However it appears that they made it right with their depositors, admitted their mistake, and moved on. A testament to the integrity of the organization.
You’re right, Dee. Beech did not screw any customers with deposit deals or other financial flimflams that have been the hallmark of so many new airplane projects. In the end they even paid full market value to buy back the few that had actually been purchased, not leased. They made honest mistakes. In hindsight they should have pulled the plug when the weight went zooming up, but it’s always hard for any of us to give up on a project.
I remember two most memorable moments in the history of the Starship. First, at Edwards AFB in California, also the home of Rutan’s Scaled Composites. In August 1983 the 85% scale prototype was completed and ready for its maiden flight over the Mojave Desert. Together with a a select group of Beech executives, we saw this very unusual machine take to the skies. It was like watching a spaceship.
While this was happening, Beech Aircraft and it’s relatively new parent, Raytheon, had sub-contracted the development of carbon fiber technology with two different firms in Utah. One company was building the fuselage, the second the wings. The two competing technologies were traditional “lay up” and “filament winding”. Beech was buying this expertise with the thought that eventually most airplanes would be made with composites.
The revolution is construction was meant as both substantial weight savings and incredible structural integrity. At a meeting in Utah, a group of us was challenged to have just two people to pick up a wing. It was incredibly light. We were then challenged to take a hammer and have a field day banging on the wing. After five minutes of banging, no visible outside damage was evident. (Now a few decades later, we also know that internal delamination between the carbon fibers and the honeycomb core can be an isssue). In addition, the canard design of the airframe was almost “stall poof”. If these goals could be achieved, and if Jet A went from the then current price of $1.25 per gallon to $2.00, the airplane would be a commercial success.
A few months later, the 85% prototype made its first public outing at the NBAA in Dallas. Beech had invited a gathering of customers and attendees to the side of the runway. The Starship flew a couple of circles over the runway, made a short field landing and flew off into the morning sun. Needless to say, this was THE EVENT of that year’s NBAA. The excitement in business aviation was the hope that Beech could deliver on this promise.
So what happened? Primarily, the ever increasing FAA Certification requirements kept increasing the weight of the airplane. With the added weight, the performance numbers also fell far short of the objectives.
Back in the day of Olive Ann Beech and Frank Hedrick, the back of the envelope calculations said that you had to sell between 70 to 100 units of a new design to break even. With the immense investment Raytheon had to make to jump through all the regulatory hoops, the Starship ended up as a commercial failure. The first production model did not fly until six years later, 1989.
The composite expertise was later used by Raytheon/Beechcraft for the fuselage of the Premier. Needless to say, Boeing is now making 787’s with composite fuselages. However, the final accounting of the Starship still ended up with a substantial deficit.
But in the end, the Starship ended up being a very memorable airplane and an interesting chapter in the history of Beechcraft.
Thanks for the memories, Juan. The 85 percent scale model of the Starship was a stroke of genius. When Beech flew that thing at the NBAA convention it made it seem like the Starship was just weeks away, when in fact, it hadn’t been really fully defined, much less well on the way to production.
I remember a lot of controversy around Wichita and other airplane circles about whether the 85 percent scale helped or hurt the project. My belief is that it ended up hurting the final result. The light weight and almost instant build that the Rutan shop could do for an experimental airplane had to have mislead Beech executives, at least a little, on how long it would take and how much it would weigh, to build the real thing.
Brings to mind my unforgetable encounter with a Starship. In the mid 80’s (i’m sure under hypnotism I could recall the exact date; I know it was a Saturday morning) I was racing a 34′ sailboat in an important, publicized regatta on Lake St. Clair, Michigan. We were circling with the fleet behind the starting line in light, fluky air awaiting the breeze to build enough wind for the racing comittee to signal a start. In the sky above was a flock of aircraft ranging from choppers, to commemoritive to … to … to … a Starship?! I’d been mildly following Raytheon’s development of this bird, but hardly expected to see one “up” close. The crew, seeing me gaping upward, turned their faces toward the specticle. It was a jaw-dropping experience. The stuff of dreams, the plane was simply too extravagant beyond practicality, but still something to behold aloft, and someone was proud enough to show it off that day.
How did you do in the race, Vic? Hope you took the start. And also hope you did better than the Starship in terms of sales success.
Benjamin Franklin said he didn’t fail 400 and some odd times in his experiments, he just found 400 and some odd ways not to do things. Cool looking airplane though.
Seems everyone has a Starship story. My last encounter with the airplane occurred on the ramp of Lane Aviation in Columbus, OH, in 1989 or 1990. It was evening, dark, and we had just parked our Citation on Lane’s ramp behind a Starship. The covers were in place on the airplane and it looked like the crew had already headed to the hotel. Our flight department was located across the hangar from Lane’s main lobby. There was a small lobby on our side of the hangar in front of our office with just a couple of chairs. As I walked into this lobby, a man stopped me and asked how to get to I-185 from the airport. I replied that there was no I-185 in Columbus. I informed him that I-70 ran through Columbus, and I-270 went around the perimeter of the city. “Isn’t this Columbus, GA,” he asked? “No, Columbus GA is still another hour and a half down the road in the Starship you just arrived in.” Seems the charter pilots(or Beech Demo pilots, not sure which) had brought him to the wrong Columbus. I could see he was about ready to blow a fuse as he informed me in all his years of corporate flying(in Gulfstreams, no doubt) his company pilots had never taken him to the wrong airport. He wanted to use our office phones but the other pilot and I just wanted to finish our paperwork and get the heck out of there. I directed him across the hangar to Lane’s main lobby where he would find some pay phones(remember those?) on the wall. The executive I had this conversation with was none other than F. Ross Johnson, former CEO of RJR Nabisco(Recall KKR hostile takeover of RJR in 1989, ‘Barbarians at the Gate’?).
Mac, I was an engineer at Raytheon working on the Starship (Starbarge). Most of the Comments are correct regarding increased weight. I blame the FAA and BEECH. While they were trying to save airframe weight, the interior guys had cast Stainless Steel ashtrays. The real problem with the Starship is its configuration. There is a Water Tunnel Model at WSU that’s used to demonstrate interference drag. Its a model of the Starship. If you look at the aft wing junction, you see 3/4 of a divergent nozzle on each wing. The fuselage is tapering, the wing is tapering and the engine nacelle is tapering away. When the model is running in the water tunnel, a dye want will fill up this zone and show almost no flow through this junction. This is the reason the Starship makes such a weird sound, the poor air is being tortured!!! This led to the fatigue problem of the propeller. Bottom line, what looks fast isn’t necessarily fast!!!
Great explanation, Mark. Looks to me like the Piaggio design has less of a divergent nozzle effect, but still some, which I guess is what accounts for the crazy noise it makes and no, it can’t be good for the prop. Are there any prop problems on the Piaggio?
I hadn’t heard about the water tunnel model, but it makes sense. Every aerodynamicist hates intersections of any kind, and certainly complex ones like on the Starship. Maybe the wing-to-fuselage intersection could have been handled better. But the best solution would have been to put the tail on the tail and the wing forward. Once the configuration was accepted the outcome for the Starship was set.
Like you say, it looks fast, but the tunnel doesn’t lie. Neither did the airspeed indicator in the actual airplane. Slick looks might sell a car where speed limits cap performance in any case. But in the air, knots, not looks, matter most.
Thanks for the comments.
Mac, you should review the January 1984 edition of Flying magazine. It was all there. One article raving about the virtues of the then in development Starship and another article describing why the Defiant failed to attract a manufacturer’s interest.
Imagine where Beech might be today if they continued the single engine turboprop “Lightening” project instead of focusing on the Starship.
Anytime you have a pusher configuration, the Prop will pass through two different masses of moving air. Its not ideal, but that is probably the reason for the weird sound the Piaggio makes. The design of the P-180 is really quite brilliant. The wing intersects in the middle of a near constant section of the fuselage. this is ideal for reduction of interference drag. The three surface configuration allows for a far aft placement of the wing spar. This makes the cabin floor clean with no hump. The bulkhead that ties the spar in also doubles as a pressure bulkhead. The P-180 is very efficient. I remember the day the NBAA mockup of the Starbarge was unveiled. Linden Blue made a very crude ethnic joke about the P-180 and said that the N number N2001OS was what the Piaggio board was going to say when they saw the Starbarge. Turns out, it was actually the Raytheon Board when they got the bill for the program!!!
Like Nick Jones once told me “Even the heathen Indians knew the feathers went on the back of the arrow”
I see 325 kts at FL320 at standard temperature. The airplane is certified to fly at FL 410, even with the extra 3,000 lbs of unnecessary weight mandated by the FAA. You can’t do that with a King Air. Imagine, if you can, how utterly awesome the airplane would have been if it were built to Burt Rutan’s original design.
Robert Scherer – Owner/Pilot, Starship NC-51
How many aircraft designed by Burt Rutan went through a complete FAA certification process? Designing experimental aircraft is something quite different than getting one certified. Imagine how awesome some of, say, Boeings aircraft would be if they could be built to Boeings “original” design. Not judging good or bad, just that the certification process is a fact of life. Maybe attempted today the outcome would have been more positive. You obviously love the Starship and its reputed to be a stout airplane, but the reality was the market judged it negatively, sadly.
Mac, interesting and overall accurate story. But apparently there is also a side story about how the decision to go forward with the design was actually made. I know the guy who was vice president for R&D when upper management decided to go forward. He along with many of his colleagues were shocked. They knew the problems you described existed when it was still on paper. But they were overruled. How the decision was made is also quite interesting and would make a nice second chapter to your story about the Starship.
The answer to that question is Linden Blue
At the time we were led to believe that Linden Blue was brought in to “finish” the Starshp project, not to give it the go-ahead. Linden was fresh from the Lear Fan, if you remember that. The Lear Fan was also a pusher but with a single propeller. Twin engines would feed, through a gearbox helicopter style, into a single shaft driving the prop.
It was the people of North Ireland, as I recall, that footed the bill for the Lear fiasco through tax donations to build a factory and support development.
But, as they say, Linden was the leading expert at that time on pusher turboprops.
I’m just curious, did you get your Starship NC-51 RVSM certified?
Yes, Starship NC-51 received RVSM certification in July of 2008.
Robert Scherer notes are based on his owning and continuously flying his Starship for about 20 years. The trips he has hosted me and my team to Oshkosh in NC-51 have always been memorable. Thank,s Robert for offsetting much of the Fake News from Mac. Mac has a history of trashing my career and my designs, even when he was at EAA Board meetings.
It is sad that he still finds enjoyment in throwing darts my way. Voyager and SpaceShipOne accomplishments were 32 and 14 years ago and it is telling that he alone in the journalist community has been mute as those programs made their place in history.
I will eventually tell the whole story of Starship development in my bio. I have refrained from releasing details of this chapter, since it is not proper to unveil secrets about the activity of those who have and will be customers of the companies I founded.
The Starship is the best airplane Beech has ever built. It’s the ONLY airplane I would own and fly single pilot. If Beech came to me today and offered a brand new King Air 350i in exchange for my Starship I would politely decline. The King air is a boring cargo van by comparison. Imagine how great the Starship would have been if the FAA didn’t make Beech add 1.5 tons of unnecessary extra weight. Counter-rotating props would have added another 10 knots at cruise and removing all but the inner 2 VG’s on the forward wing would have added 5-10 more. Oh, and Mac, your wrong about the flaps. The forward wing sweeps to keep the aircraft from pitching down during flap deployment. The flaps aren’t even necessary, they reduce stall by just 5 knots. I often take off and land without them.
Robert Scherer – Owner/Pilot, Starship NC-51
Whoa, I don’t think Mac deserves that. I’m sure an aeronautical engineer from another era would of preferred Lindberg attempt his crossing in his design. The actions of others caused that not to happen. Likewise, contemplating why we aren’t seeing Beech Starships filling our skies is fascinating.
Keep up the good work Mac and I eagerly await reading the bio.
Reality Check: Voyager, a far more ambitious project than the Lindberg crossing, was a Burt Rutan design. So was Global Flyer, SpaceShipOne, White Knight, etc, etc. What are Mac’s contributions to the advancement of aviation/aerospace? What are your contributions? Nada.
You don’t have to carry Burt Rutan’s water!! The Starship’s basic configuration was flawed. Burt screwed up, plain and simple. There is no denying that the Starship is one draggy bird. The interference drag at the main wing intersection is Rutan’s configuration. I was there from the beginning of the construction of the 85% POC, there was never any other configuration. Compare your beloved Starship to a Cheyenne 4, that’s the reason it didn’t sell. The weight issues were caused by the FAA and more importantly, Beechcraft. The rear ventral fin is a great example of an overweigh and very poorly designed composite structure. That example is duplicated all over that plane. My earlier comment about cast steel ashtrays is not fiction. Plenty of blame to go around for a plane universally considered a disaster. But the configuration is all Burts.
How many hours of Starship time do you have Mark? I’ll bet ZERO. I just wonder why you hate an airplane everyone else (except Mac) loves.
I don’t need to carry Burt’s water, he’s can carry more than all of us combined. His record speaks for itself. What are your accomplishments Mark? Critic of all successful aerospace engineers?
You are wrong about the ash trays. They are made of stamped stainless sheet metal, not cast steel. Where do you get that kind of bad info? Did you just make it up?
You are also wrong about the ventral fin. I have several at the parts warehouse. They’re made of perhaps 3-4 layers of carbon fiber; they’re very thin walled. The total weight of the part is less than 25 lbs. Again, where do you get your incredibly bad information?
Starship NC-51 (The best airplane the company ever built)
Fly well Richard! Appropriate that I was reading this story in Air Facts when I received the news……
I was there at the beginning. I saw the original Ventral fin design. The prototype ashtrays were case steel. Stamped Stainless steel?? Really. even a love struck pilot like yourself should realize the density is the same. I am an accomplished aerospace engineer. I have had a long and very successful career. There is no denying Burt Rutan’s accomplishments. However even Jesus made mistakes. You sound like a zealot. There is no denying the drag on the Starship and the root cause for it. That’s physics and only God can change that.
The prototype is not the production version, let alone the 2000A version. The ash trays are not heavy, nor is the ventral fin. Please remember, the airplane was designed in the 1980’s, not last year. Even so, the Starship is still superior to the King Air it was meant to replace, even with her flaws. And yes, I am a bit of a zealot when it comes to folks trashing the best airplane the company ever built.
Well Mr. Calder, I must admit that I don’t know much about the Starship, but I can tell you for sure that you lost 100% of your credibility as an engineer and all other categories when you said that Jesus made mistakes. In fact, that just might be the biggest mistake you ever made.
God is to be reverenced, not taken lightly.
Jake, Bill’s remark was referencing the fact that Richard Collins, perhaps the pre-eminent aviation journalist of the last 50 years, passed away last week. His father, Leighton Collins, founded Air Facts Magazine.
Hello Mac, I certainly appreciate the article on the Starship and some of the negatives with the aircraft. What must also be considered is that to be first and revolutionary you have to take chances. Aircraft designs in the 70-80’s were not as solid and vetted as they are today (and today I argue that every airplane I see is just reconstituted designs from the 80’s). Analysis methods and technology were not robust enough on any platform in that era. Certainly composites, certification of composites, and process control was not robust in the 80’s as most of the process control was still being proven out. Yes Beechcraft embarked on a revolutionary change in design, manufacturing, and certification. Hindsight is 20-20 and obviously it wasn’t a success. However, I submit that the lessons learned from starship formed the essence of subsequent platforms in the aerospace industry including the Premier and 787 and many military programs. Yes commercially Beechcraft failed, but had they not been acquired by (bean counter led companies) instead of aviation purists (designers, pilots, engineers, coupled with fiscal sense) that could pursue true design change, it might have been a different story.
While your article certainly is not complimentary of the design or technology, you don’t mention any of the incredible technological lessons learned from Starship that cascaded into various parts of the company, and not including Textron.
From an owner/operator perspective the starship is a fine airplane. 30 years old it has not succumbed to many of the metal fatigue/corrosion issues of King Airs, Citations, Merlins, and other similar aircraft. 30 years later its systems including landing gear, and other mechanical systems are easily repairable and supportable in the field.
Ask yourself this question – if I bought a similar type airplane (Piaggo, 500 series citation, Piper Cheyanne) where would I be at 30 years of age on that platform? I will submit that the citation suffers from horrible reliability of its airframe due to corrosion and fatigue. The Piaggo suffers from a terrible supply chain problem including a landing gear that costs in excess of 200K to overhaul, and the Cheyanne is just a sub-par build quality airplane (my opinion) as an (aerospace engineer, aircraft mechanic, and an ATP).
Yes I am defending the Starship. I am defending it because I have 3000+ hours in a Starship and continue to successfully operate 2 aircraft today 30 years later. However, having worked on the airplane, modified it, and upgraded it in the field, I am going to tell you very few aircraft that were made in the last 30 years, much less today have the simplicity of design as the starship today. You want to rig an engine today? Send the box in and get a 100k bill. You want to fly past 10000 hours – aging aircraft inspection here we come at a bill of 1M. You want to overhaul your landing gears (special tools, and 1 OEM) here we come. In fact I spend 95% of my life designing replacement solutions for obsolesce products on aircraft and or repairs to keep older airplanes flying? Why is that? none of these GA designs are optimized, much less the starship. Textron, Gulfstream, Embraer build airplanes like new cars. Fly them for 2500 hours, scrap them. God help you if you want to sustain the platform for 10+ years of longer.
My point is this: Starship was a commercial failure. However, the design lessons learned, the sustainability of platform lessons learned, and the composite manufacturing lessons learned were instrumental for the aerospace industry. If our industry had more risk in its nature we would design more, fly more, test more, fail more, but MOST importantly LEARN more.
I will submit to the group and to this article the following: You tell me where you can find an airplane that will fly at Flight Level 35.0/36.0, Cruise north of 300 KIAS, 95 GPH of JetA, 6 passengers, and go 1200 NM, Single Pilot, and have TRUE SAFETY REDUNDANCY? Has an unlimited life of validity for its airframe? has no fatigue critical or corrosion based aging aircraft inspections?
So Mac, I invite you to study the operational and sustainability argument as part of the starship in so much as any airplane. It is never the acquisition cost as many of us know, its the maintenance and sustainability costs. Those also have to factor in to the equation in any prognosis as to the good/bad of an airplane. Furthermore, I invite you to interview the 3 guys flying the airplane and the guys that work on the airplane and keep them flying. You might find that while short on initial design and performance expectations, the Starship 30 years later has allot to offer in terms of performance, reliability, safety standard, IFR/IMC capability etc. Including that fact that the safety systems and its certification basis being to FAA/FAR Part 23 Commuter category created one hell of a robust platform for future durability and reliability.
Feel free to reach out to Robert or myself. we would love to chat and share the good with the bad so that more perspective can be given on the Starship story as misaligned as its been.
Owner, Mechanic, Pilot
Mac. I enjoyed your article. Keep up the good work. I got a kick out of watching a Starship go up against Airwolf. Who knows… perhaps we are long-lost relatives. David McLellan
In the aviation world, dispatch reliability is where it counts, what are the Starship numbers?
I was in charge of Nondestructive Testing from design through the last one built, including fatigue / static testing and In Service requirements (which for the composite components was / is nearly non-existent). We used state of the art equipment and monitored the construction of the primary structure and the secondary bonding to assure compliance to type design. This aircraft, besides looking good, was / is very robust. I’ll bet it goes another 30 years easy.
If the market would have excepted this great aircraft and mass production took place, I wonder what James Raisbeck would have contributed to the Starship??? 10, 15, 20 KTS
Very interesting read all the way to the last comment.
If anyone is interested, I have two McCauley propellers from a Starship on eBay for sale.
As a Flight Service Specialist at Macon AFSS (MCN, and not to be confused with MAC), while giving a face-to-face pilot briefing, when I asked for the type aircraft, the pilot replied, “A Scareship! Sorry a Starship – BEST)” He said it was a common joke. I was amused.
After the briefing, the pilot asks if I would like to see the aircraft, I was due for a break and got to see firsthand what a beautiful and I think innovative aircraft up close and personal. I was impressed but admit I have always wanted to fly in one but unfortunately have yet to take a ride in the BEST.
First of all, the differing feelings related to the Starship are normal. What is not normal is the descent down into the muck of zealous disagreements. With that said, let’s stop the mud-slinging and keep the dialogue professional and educational. We owe it to the newer aviators who look to you seasoned aviators for wisdom and mentoring – not catfighting among yourselves. We need to follow the great wisdom of the Dragnet TV show: “… just the facts ma’am …”. Mac Mc, please keep up your writing. I enjoy it immensely and I learn something valuable to my flying career. Mr’s Scherer, Narayanan and Calder, I learned a lot from data you all brought to the discussion and I am envious of your flying and your ownership of a truly unique aircraft (that I would absolutely love to fly).
I think I have something (to a degree) in common with the Starship. I own and fly a Skymaster and I face a daily barrage of Mixmaster jokes, maintenance ridicule and etc.. I feel that the Skymaster was a concept that was ahead of its time and a commercial program that was totally failed by its marketing team. In this article and in the comments, I learned new information on “pusher prop” aerodynamics and I learned that I now lust to fly a Starship. In both the Starship and the Skymaster, I wonder what they could have been with 2018 technology, composites, FAA acceptance of new ideas (and not bad ideas of over-engineering 3000lbs of unneeded structure) and modern marketing.
My comment here may be a bit anticlimactic. About 25 yrs ago I was blessed with the fortune to see a Starship fly overhead near Doylestown Pa. The Starship was about 1000 ft. AGL. I was so excited that I ran to tell my wife, unfortunatly her level of excitement did not match mine. We immediatly drove the few miles to the airport but did not see the plane anywhere. I would have loved to see it up close.
The Starship with her flexible wing gave an incredibly smooth ride, all passengers loved it. Sure, it was late and overweight like most designs of the slide-rule era…but the real killer was poor product support from Raytheon. Proud to have flown several of the 50 production models.
Hey Tony, Hard to believe I know for the early 80’s, but the Starship was designed purely on CAD and not part of the slide-rule era. In this case the design software was called CADAM developed by Lockheed. The Parts List and Notes List for the design drawings were also all released electronically. Tim Schramer (Control Surface Structural Design, Beechcraft 2000A Program, 1983-85.)
For years I have grabbed my binoculars and run out the back patio door of my house when I hear the distinctive sound of a Starship cruise into Carlsbad, Ca airport.
I give my kids a little history lesson about the Starship and what a revolutionary plane it is.
Wondering which one of you Starship owners is buzzing over my house???
Too bad the owner/operator Bob Scherer is estranged from his two brothers, sued his own mother over money and refuses to marry the mother of his only child. A real “winner”.
All this suggests that indeed a STARSHIP-II is overdue to settle at least many of the weight-issues in the context of 2019 composite-airframe regulations.
Would Master Rutan have ‘second’ thoughts on this theme? After all, few designers are ever truly ‘done’ on even the most serious projects ?!
Even the afore-mentioned aerodynamic complexities might have plausible answers for today, to at least reduce some of the geometrically-inevitable challenges.
In the overall scheme of ‘Efficiency’ and ‘Sustainability’ – both increasing in technical and ethical urgency – this STARSHIP-II turboprop should outperform the jet-competition in the 2020s.
With ‘outsider novices’ e.g. plausibly starting up electric-car companies, and with the full might Master Rutan’s experience on hand, are there no well-heeled folks intrigued enough to pursue STARSHIP-II ?
And while we are at it, we also REALLY need Super-STOL composite amphibians in a range of sizes… Shared overall geometries. Just in a range of size/carrying-capacities. For some of those, we might even look at plywood/epoxy/foam/fiberglass hulls so well buildable as one-off options to again and again adapt to different needs…
Be advised however, that flying-boat hulls are not ‘as easy’ as too many aircraft-designers have apparently assumed across the last 115 years. One of the many reasons why despite a globe with endless water runways, we do not have an adequate range of such types available.
A lovely aircraft does not need to be an efficient one, nor the vice versa, but often looks go with good handling.
The odd-looking Avanti sure makes a lot of noise during take-off, just as the Starship, due to the different airflow speeds over and under the wing loading the propeller unevenly.
I guess propeller wear and tear is greater on any pusher than on tractor installations, but pushers look good, I must confess!
Two comments, first the snarky comments from “Jim” have no bearing on the article nor the comments.
Secondly, forgetting the technical aspects and the economic aspects, how many of us let our imaginations run or were inspired by not only the wonder of flight, but by a design enveloped pushed to and maybe past their limits as it flew overhead?
Praise the designers and builders of such craft. Hopefully long shall fly the Starship!
Having flown the Starship and been directly involved with its initial introduction into the charter market, three other issues contributed to its demise:
1)the sheer size of the aircraft made it all but impossible to hangar in other than huge, mass storage hangars making it unattractive to potential owners who leased or owned private hangars;
2)an un-nerving vibration throughout the airframe when power was reduced to flight idle at top of decent- initially attributed to the huge composite props;
3)an unknown and uncertain repair should any part of the fuselage or wing be damaged – first addressed when a hand tool was inadvertently dropped on the top surface of a wing;
4) the performance of the forward canard was greatly diminished if contaminated by frost or other contaminants which could lead to an off airport excursion on take off if left unchecked.
My personal hands on experience flying the airplane was great- very stable, stall recovery required minimal control input as it basically fluttered down through the air, instrument approaches were a breeze as you could track the airplane’s progress on the localizer using the EFIS, turn off track to avoid weather, and then reposition the airplane onto the localizer effortlessly which was a BIG deal back then, and it was faster than the King Air’s of the day though, as mentioned, didn’t make the numbers as advertised. I hated to see it go but also knew it would likely never make it in the long run. A very cool airplane in the day and one that I will always be grateful for the opportunity to fly.