Now this is a strange one, perhaps among the most unusual looking aircraft ever built to fly. The Beechcraft Starship is truly in a class of its own when it comes to its design, seeming to defy every convention to become a testament of aeronautical achievement. However, though this obscure machine is a thing of stylistic beauty, it was also a sales calamity, having failed to capture the hearts and minds of the aviation world.
To trace the Beechcraft Starship, you need to go back to the mid to late 1970’s. Beechcraft, a contraction of the name Beech Aircraft Corporation, was founded in 1932 by husband and wife Walter and Olive Ann Beech. By 1979, the company had built a reputation for itself by constructing sturdy light aircraft as well as a selection of executive transports and small airliners. In terms of its executive range, the flagship of the company’s fleet was the Beechcraft King Air and its derivative Super King Air. The original King Air dated back to 1963, but the Super King Air of 1972 was truly the favoured son; the fact that it’s still being constructed even to this day being a testament to its design.
However, by 1979, Beech decided to explore potential replacements to the nearly 20 year old King Air design, which itself was derived from the earlier Queen Air model of 1958. The main intention of this new aircraft was to be faster and larger than the King Air, appealing to the rising trend in higher capacity, higher performance executive transports. While not a jet, Beech intended the aircraft to be comparable with the likes of the Cessna Citation, Learjet 35 and the Gulfstream IV in terms of comfort and aeronautical abilities.
In January 1980, the first concept, known as Preliminary Design 330 (PD 330), was unveiled and, after some tinkering, was contracted by Beech on August 25th, 1982. The company signed a contract with Scaled Composites to refine the design and build an 85% scale proof-of-concept (POC) aircraft, with Scaled Composites making their own significant alteration to the concept with the addition of variable geometry to the canard.
The POC aircraft first took to the skies in August 1983, but the plane was basically just an empty airframe with no pressurisation system, no certified avionics, and a different overall design and material specifications than the planned production model; which was now known as the Model 2000. The POC was only used for early test flights and was later scrapped once examinations were completed.
Beech built a series of prototypes, but in their haste had them constructed while development work was continuing. The result was each prototype being incrementally modified with every new advancement in the technology rather than waiting for all the proposed modifications to be refined then added to a final prototype. This was also done in order to reduce construction costs as due to the aircraft’s composite build it would’ve been cost prohibitive to build multiple, from-scratch prototypes repeatedly. In total, three full-scale prototypes were built, all of which were airworthy. NC-1, which first took to the skies on February 15th, 1986, was used for aerodynamic testing and was the only Starship equipped with conventional electro-mechanical avionics; NC-2 was used for avionics and systems testing; and NC-3 was used for flight management system and powerplant testing.
The construction process was sadly not a smooth one for the Starship, with delays being incurred due to underestimations in the complexity and manufacturing of the aircraft. The Starship project truly was cutting edge, with Beech repeatedly encountering design problems that were incrementally dealt with. Examples included the composite construction, technical difficulties of correcting a pitch damping problem, and developing the stall-warning system. The result of these modifications saw the construction of an aircraft much larger in size than the King Air 350 while having the same gross ramp weight of 15,010 lbs. The overall cost of the project was estimated to be $300m ($610m in 2018 money).
Perhaps its most endearing feature was the use of carbon fibre composites as opposed to regular aluminium or other metals, such construction materials having only previously been used on military aircraft such as the General Dynamics F-16XL prototype. While today it’s commonplace to build civil aircraft out of composite materials, the Airbus A350 and the Boeing 787 being prominent examples, in the 1980’s such practices were unheard of. Beech’s choice of carbon fibre composite use was predicated on the material’s durability and high strength-to-weight ratio. According to Beech, the Starship weighs less than it would have if it were built from aluminium. Nonetheless, the empty weight of production aircraft exceeded the target by several thousand pounds.
In terms of the overall design, the use of forward-mounted canards provided additional lift and therefore means the aircraft’s stall speed is phenomenally low. The forward surface stalls before the main lifting surface, which allows the nose to drop and more-normal flight to resume. As such, the aircraft is near impossible to stall by accident and can land at very slow speeds; ideal for small regional fields and executive airports.
The placement of the vertical stabiliser was also unconventional. Usually, the vertical stabiliser is a single, centrally-located fin at the rear of the fuselage. On the Starship, the vertical stabilisers have been split into two small rudders located on the wingtips; which resemble winglets. This was done to reduce transmitted propeller noise into the airframe.
The final external design feature of note was the position of the propellers facing rearward, pushing rather than pulling the aircraft. This was done, again, to reduce cabin noise as the propellers are further from the passengers and because vortices from the propeller tips do not strike the fuselage sides. However, the propellers are operating in a turbulent airflow in the pusher configuration (due to airflow past the wings moving aft in vortex sheets) and high-velocity exhaust gasses are discharged directly into the propellers, thus making them noisier than they would be in a tractor configuration.
Otherwise, the Beech Starship’s main party pieces were its highly advanced avionic systems and flight instrumentation, including a 14-tube Proline 4 AMS-850 “glass cockpit” supplied by Rockwell Collins; the first application of an all-glass cockpit in a business aircraft.
Upon its launch in 1989, the resulting aircraft, which took the skies for the first time on April 25th of that year, was truly a thing to behold.
The Starship, with its forward canards, pusher engine/propeller configuration, carbon fibre composite airframe, and vertical stabilisers being placed on the ends of the wings rather than centrally, was a polarising beast among customers and aviation fans alike; truly unlike anything that had ever been seen before. The aircraft’s looks faced an equal amount of both praise and revilement, with many considering it one of the most beautiful planes ever built while others called it a bombastic and bizarre experiment gone wrong; some ever going so far as to say it was a butchered King Air!
Regardless, after putting $300m into the development and construction of the Starship, did the aircraft make its money back?
Not in the slightest!
In its first 3 years of production, the aircraft only sold 11 units, barely even a dribble when compared to the hundreds of comparative Citations, Learjets and GS IV’s sold during the same period. The aircraft would eventually stutter on until 1995, when the final aircraft, NC-53, the 53rd aircraft built, left the factory.
So, why was this thing such an abysmal failure?
Several factors have been cited as to the sales disaster that was the Beechcraft Starship, including an economic recession, its weird design, it’s $3.9m asking price and, critically, it’s performance.
An economic slowdown in the late 1980’s, followed by a full recession in 1991 following the Gulf War, meant that demand for business transports was much less than it would’ve been normally. No one was in the market for buying $3m aircraft, and thus builders from across the spectrum saw a downturn in the number of executive aircraft they sold. This, however, only served to compound the Starship’s own woes which weren’t exactly endemic to its competitors.
While the design of the aircraft was indeed novel, the most damning problem with the Starship was its speed and performance against its competitors. The Starship could fly at a top speed of 385mph over a range of 1,742 miles at a ceiling of 41,000ft. The comparative Learjet 35 could fly at 542mph over a range of 2,874 miles at a ceiling of 45,000ft, while the Cessna Citation II could fly at 464mph over a range of 1,998 miles at 43,000ft.
Perhaps the most notable failing of the Starship was when it was compared to another executive turboprop, the Piper PA-42 Cheyenne. This aircraft was not only cheaper, but could also fly at 362mph over 2,200 miles at a ceiling of 35,000ft.
All of these factors and more made the Starship deeply unattractive to potential buyers, with its small number of owners either being specialist organisations which required its unique design and performance, private customers who wanted a strange looking business aircraft to enhance their image, or were operated by Beechcraft themselves for testing.
In 1991, Beechcraft attempted to get their own fleet of Starships to earn some revenue by offering two-year lease contracts to private owners, but this failed to stimulate demand. Beechcraft would eventually strip down and incinerating their Starships in 2003, when it was found that maintaining such a small fleet of non-standard aircraft was cost-prohibitive. Other stored examples were sent to the Evergreen Air Center located at the Pinal Airpark in Arizona for destruction, while four units are currently in storage at Marana Regional Airport. In order to remove the need to supply spare parts, including the cumbersome and expensive composite panels, Beech offered private owners the opportunity to trade-in their Starships for updated models such as the Premier I jet.
Beechcraft do still offer limited support for the remaining owners, but this is provided through a telephone hotline. Spare parts provision is the responsibility of a private supplier (to which Beechcraft sold all remaining spare parts for a net loss), while Rockwell Collins has maintained full support for the AMS-850 avionics suite.
However, there are still a few Starships on the go even today. Five Starships are registered as airworthy, two of which operate out of Addison Airport north of Dallas. Meanwhile, seven other units have been preserved at museums across the United States.
The Beechcraft Starship is amazing by every definition of the word.
It was an amazing design built in an amazing way and provided amazing features, but would go on to become an even more amazing commercial failure. A mixture of obscure design, underwhelming performance, external economic factors and an incredibly steep price tag mean that the aircraft was doomed from the start. While the design of the aircraft isn’t universally unique, with the likes of the similarly designed Piaggio P.180 Avanti making its first flight in the same year, the Starship is still one of those quintessentially 80’s aircraft.
Only in a time that mixed exuberant ideas and easy-to-come-by money could such a strange aircraft ever come into existence. If the Starship had entered sales five years earlier when the economy was at an all time high, the results would have likely been drastically different. Instead, this unfortunate aircraft failed to find its footing and slipped between the cracks in the market, and has now been consigned to the annuls of aviation history.
Essentially, the Starship is the aviation equivalent of the Aston Martin Lagonda luxury saloon, a car built with insane styling, state-of-the-art but highly complex and extremely unreliable electronics, a gas guzzling V12 engine that was marketed in the middle of a fuel crisis, and on top of all that an outrageous price tag that resulted in not a single unit making back its money.