Beech X700: The Starship that could have been

The X700 mockup looks sleek compared to the King Airs which evolved from the Queen Air, which was itself an evolution of the Twin Bonanza.

I heard from John Pike after he read my observation here that the Starship was a huge disaster for Beech, and for all of general aviation in terms of an enormous missed opportunity. John read with special interest because he was VP of research and development at Beech during the period the Starship was hatched.

Beech, as every successful company does, had ongoing efforts to design improved and replacement airplanes for the company line. In the late 1970s John had his preliminary design group perform configuration studies on airplanes that could supersede Beech’s King Air 90 and 200 stalwart turboprops.

Beech X700 interior
The X700 mockup represents the King Air 90 size replacement with enough cabin length for a club four passenger seat configuration. Note the enormous cabin windows.

One of the seven configurations considered was a pusher canard turboprop built using composite material. This was long before the name Starship was ever imagined at Beech. And, because of huge risks in the canard pusher configuration meeting performance projections, and FAA certification complications of a composite airplane, John ranked this design last in the lineup of seven as most likely to succeed.

Beech X700 cockpit
The X700 cockpit mockup still has plenty of analog gauges but does imagine what was to come in terms of the electronic flight instruments.

John named what he thought was the best idea to come out of the preliminary design group the X700. It was a conventional turboprop in terms of configuration with engines on the wings and a T-tail. Unlike the King Airs with their “vertical oval” shape fuselage, the X700 cabin was round, a more efficient design for containing cabin pressurization. A full scale mockup of the smallest King Air 90 replacement of the X700 was built.

The X700 cockpit featured electronic flight instruments, something quite advanced for the 1970s. The team also planned to use extensive metal bonding to manufacture smooth airfoils for the wings and tail, something Cessna was doing with the its piston twin 414A, 421C and 441 turobprop on the other side of town.

To me the most striking figure of the X700 was its enormous cabin windows. The cockpit transparencies—as we cognoscenti now call windows—are also huge, but that’s less remarkable. The reason I’m so enamored with large cabin windows is the success of Gulfstream. That company has gotten most things right since the first G-1 in 1958, and huge oval cabin windows were there from the start. What did Gulfstream do with its all-new G650, G500 and G600 designs? Make the windows even bigger. Passengers, who are the real customers, just love them.

Beech formation mockup
The preliminary design group imagined growing the X700 design into a straight wing jet, and with more modification, possibly into a faster swept wing airplane.

John told me the mockup of the X700 was destroyed and never saw the light of day. Other preliminary design and engineering work on the model was tossed out and the new ownership and management pressed ahead with a decision to build what became the Starship.

Every manufacturing company, whether it builds boats, autos or airplanes, has libraries full of preliminary designs that didn’t advance to production. I’m sure Ford had alternative designs for the Edsel on the shelf.

Looking back is always error free, but it’s still interesting to see what kind of Beech airplanes we could be flying today if different decisions had been made those 40 years ago. Thanks for filling us in, John.

 

6 Comments

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  • Great story Mac, thanks!

    Looks like the proposed aircraft used Garrett 331’s. They were more efficient than the Pratts, but operationally more troublesome. Looking at the lack of success of the Garrett powered King Air 100, the engine choice might have dampened enthusiasm for the new type. Guess we’ll never know.

    Curious how the corporate flying is going? For those of us who cannot write, it’s the second best way to not work for a living.

    • Hi Bill,
      John Pike said they mocked up Garrett engines because at the time they were more efficient and held some promise of greater performance. But no engine selection had been made.
      The corporate flying is great for me. Nice people and nearly all one day trips. Perfect semi-retirement job.
      Thanks,
      Mac Mc

  • That is an interesting bit of history for those of us in the business at the time. It does look like they patterned the windscreen from the Learjet and the sides from a Gulfstream; both good patterns. I agree that the Garretts probably would have ultimately become Pratts.

    As I recall, Lynden Blue was running the show and perhaps prone to attempting big leaps (Prescott Pusher comes to mind).

  • Ugly, just plain ugly. NOT deserving of the Starship moniker. The Starship is the best airplane Beech has ever built. Period.

    Robert Scherer – Owner/Pilot, Starship NC-51

  • Oh yes, the best plane Beech ever built. That’s why they only built 53 of them and had to practically bribe customers into leasing them. Yet the KingAir is still in production and still dominates the turboprop market. If the Starship was so great, why did it fail so completely in the market?

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