Beech Starship 2000A – too much, too soon versus hidebound bureaucracy
Tags: aircraft, Aviation, Beech King Air, Beech Starship 2000, Beechcraft Museum, Burt Rutan, business aircraft, canard, carbon fibre composite, FAA, fuselage, museum, Pratt & Whitney Canada, PT6A turboprop, pusher propellers, Scale Composites, Tennessee, Tullahoma, USA, Walter Beech
Sometimes you just know that its not going to end well – the ‘slow-motion’ movement of the Waterford crystal vase (full of water and tulips) towards the kitchen floor; the inexorable descent of that messy curry in the direction of your neighbor’s white carpet; the battering of that ‘sure-fire, can’t miss’ IPO your brother-in-law told you about, within seconds of the opening bell.
The Beech Aircraft Company – founded by Walter & Ann Mellor Beech in Wichita, Kansas in 1935 – has long had a reputation for quality and innovation in their range of aircraft. The company’s ‘reverse-stagger’ layout on their Model 17 ‘Staggerwing’ remains a classic, to this day. So, it would be logical for this particular company to want to remain at the cutting-edge of the twin-engined business aircraft world. Their Beech King Air, powered by two of Pratt & Whitney of Canada’s famous PT6A turboprop engines was a class-leader, but in the late 1970’s, Beech decided to take their game to the next level.
A radical twin-engined aircraft was designed, using the same PT6A engines of 1,200hp, but this time in a ‘pusher’ configuration at the rear of the aircraft. This meant that the wing would be displaced far to the rear of the fuselage (to generate the lift close to the engines, and the center of gravity) and a ‘canard’, or front wing, would balance the whole, aerodynamically. As if this wasn’t enough, there now couldn’t be a conventional, centrally-placed fin and rudder, as this would be subject to intense vibration and turbulence, and would transmit this to the fuselage (and therefore the passengers). Beech’s solution was to place what it called ‘tipsails’ at the wingtips, vertical surfaces which each had a rudder. There was an all-new 14 screen ‘glass cockpit’, the Rockwell/Collins ‘Proline 4’ AMS-850, which was capable of single-pilot operation. To top all this off – the aircraft took a huge stride forward in engineering terms, being completely constructed of carbon fibre composite, at a time when this material was used almost exclusively by military aircraft.
As you can imagine, such a radical design would need a great deal of testing. The initial solution was to build a ‘proof of concept’ large scale flying prototype. This had been done in the past – for example, the WW2 bomber, the Short Stirling, had been preceded by the 1/2 scale S.31. Beech chose 85% as an appropriate scale, and entrusted the production of this machine to Burt Rutan’s Scale Composites. This famous company thought that the canard wing should have variable geometry, a very sound suggestion. The p.o.c. aircraft first flew in August, 1983; it was sparsely equipped, and did not represent the final design in many respects.
However, the Federal Aviation Administration, when faced with such a new and radical design reacted in a very predictable manner. Beech were forced to produce three test examples of their new ‘Starship’, and the type underwent a most rigorous test program. One aircraft was subjected to 40,000 hours of stress-testing – equivalent to two ‘flying’ lifetimes! The FAA insisted on increased lightning protection for passengers, with wire-mesh (forming a Faraday cage) being inserted between layers of the carbon fibre, before they were cured. Talking of which, Beech were let down by their suppliers, and had to develop ways of safely producing and forming large-scale composite structures.
The FAA modifications added more and more weight to the design, until it grew past 12,500lbs. This was a disaster, as an aircraft of this weight in the U.S.A., requires the pilot to become ‘type certified’, rather than just have just a generic ‘twin rating’. The development program had now taken more than 5 years, and the price of a new Starship 2000 had swollen to close to $4 million dollars. Despite all these problems, the initial batch of 20 aircraft which were laid down in production tooling had a sparkling performance (385mph top speed, 1,575 mile range) carrying a crew of two and eight passengers, and the 33 other aircraft, the 2000A model, although carrying only 6 passengers, had a more private toilet and vanity at the rear of the aircraft.
Yes, only 53 examples of this advanced aircraft were built, over a six year period from 1989 to 1995. The development programme had cost Beech more than $300 million dollars. The company was now a division of Raytheon Inc, and in a fit of almost panic, they offered FREE maintenance to all Starship buyers. This backfired, as some took advantage of this to have all minor faults rectified, constantly, which gave the aircraft a terrible reputation as a ‘hangar queen’ which it did NOT deserve. Potential owners took one look at the few Starships around and saw them constantly being worked on; many Starships remained unsold.
The end came in 1995. The company had failed to move its stock of Starships, even when offering them on 2-year leases. Beech began buying Starships and scrapping them, whilst offering very advantageous terms on other aircraft in their range. This ‘scrap and incinerate’ program was carried out by Evergreen Air Center in Arizona, although they have since sold some redundant airframes to existing Starship owners for spares. Beech explained its actions by stating that it could not afford to maintain the spares needed to support such a tiny population of an aircraft type, and also that this could lead to potential product liability issues in the future.
Some Starship enthusiasts have held out. As far as I am aware there are five currently active examples of this elegant machine still gracing the skies, with the possibility of a sixth being returned to flight status in the future.
Strangely enough, that is the exact number of preserved Starships, also. Here you can see one of the five, a Starship 2000A, construction number NC-49, built in 1994 and formerly owned by ‘Taxi Aereo’ a Mexican operation, with the registration XA-TQF. It is on display at the magnificent Beechcraft Museum at Tullahoma, Tennessee. This facility has two display halls, filled with beautiful Beech (and related) aircraft, and it saddened me greatly when I found out that I was the ONLY person to have come through its doors on the day of my visit. It was the best $10 I spent in Tennessee.
Is this the end of the Starship? Not if Robert Scherer, the owner of NC-51 has anything to say about it! He has devised a cunning plan to see the Starship II take to the skies. It involves re-certifying the aircraft to its original weight (shedding 2,500lb of FAA-mandated weight increases); eliminating the 800lbs weight of the flap system (this only reduces stalling speed by 5 knots, and you might get 2 knots back with the reduced weight); replacing the PT6 turboprops with turbojets for superior speed and altitude; and removing all but two of the vortex generators on the canard (the original aerodynamicist involved insists that the rest of those currently fitted are FAA-mandated, and are NOT needed) – this would gain another 10/15 knots of speed.
I know this sounds ‘pie-in-the sky’, but the two major faults of the Beech Starship seem to have been that it was all ‘too new’ at the time, and that it emerged in the middle of a major recession. Oh, and that the FAA seemed to have taken a violent dislike to it!
The Beech Starship 2000/2000A – a great machine that was WELL ahead of its time.