The Beechcraft Starship
is a futuristic-looking United States
turboprop-powered six- to eight-seat business aircraft
. It was designed by Burt Rutan
-based design and fabrication company Scaled Composites
in the early 1980s, and built by the Wichita, Kansas
-based Beech Aircraft Corporation
in the late 1980s.
Work began in 1979 when Beechcraft identified a need to replace the King Air 200
model. After a brief hiatus while the company was being bought by Raytheon
, full development began in 1982 when Beechcraft approached Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites, a leader in the field of novel composite aircraft design. Much of the design work utilised computer-aided design
, using the CATIA
While in development at Scaled Composites, the 85%-scale prototype was the Model 115, and Beechcraft referred to the production version as the Model 2000. The Model 115 first flew in late August 1983. However, this aircraft had no pressurization system, no certified avionics, and a different airframe design and material specifications than the planned production Model 2000. Only one Model 115 was built, and it has since been scrapped.
The first full-size Starship (the Model 2000) flew on February 15 1986. Prototypes were produced even as development work was continuing — a system demanded by the use of composite materials, as the tooling required is very expensive and has to be built for production use from the outset. The program was delayed several times, at first due to underestimating the development complexity involved and later to overcome technical difficulties concerning the stall-warning system.
The first production Starship flew in late 1988, after over $300 million in development costs. Those working in the program have stated that much of the development delay was due to the new owners' ongoing vacillation and lack of assurance over whether to continue with the new-concept project.
The Starship was notable for several reasons:
- Its all-graphite composite airframe, using high-tech materials instead of aluminum. These materials were in frequent use to varying degrees on military aircraft, but no civilian aircraft certified by the US Federal Aviation Administration had ever used them so extensively. Composites were chosen to reduce the weight of the aircraft and to provide exceptional surface smoothness. However, the empty weight of production aircraft considerably exceeded the target.
- Its canard design, with the lifting surface aft of the horizontal stabilizer. As configured, the Starship cannot be stalled - the forward surface stalls before the main lifting surface, which allows the nose to drop and more-normal flight to resume.
- Its lack of a conventional centrally placed vertical tail. Its two vertical surfaces are mounted at the tips of the swept wings, which places the rudders well aft of the aircraft's center of gravity.
- Its pusher design, with the turboprop engines mounted facing the rear, pushing rather than pulling the aircraft. This design has the potential of a quieter ride, since the propellers are far removed 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 thus the resulting propeller noise is more choppy and raucous than otherwise.
- Flight instrumentation for the Starship included a 16-tube Proline 4 AMS-850 "glass cockpit" supplied by Rockwell Collins, an early application of this concept in small civil aircraft.
Commercially, the aircraft was a failure, with little demand. Only fifty-three Starships were ever built, and of those only a handful were sold. Many of the aircraft were eventually leased by Raytheon, which allowed the company to control their distribution and operational life. Raytheon considered the cost of supporting a commercial fleet of just 53 aircraft with necessary parts and flight training to be prohibitive. Leasing the aircraft allowed Raytheon to effectively recall and ground most of the fleet at the end of their initial leases.
Some reasons for the lack of demand:
- Price. 1989 list price for a Starship was $3.9 million, similar to the Cessna Citation and Learjet 31, which were pure jets of similar carrying capacity and range. The Piper Cheyenne, a turboprop airplane of similar capacity, was less expensive ($2.9 million).
- Performance. The Starship was slower than the Cessna Citation. It was slower than the Learjet 31. The turboprop-powered Piper Cheyenne was also faster than the Starship. The turboprop-powered Italian Piaggio P.180 Avanti had a configuration somewhat similar to the Starship (it incorporated a canard as well as a conventional tailplane) and comparable capacity, but was faster.
- Economic conditions. The Starship was finally introduced as the US economy was entering a periodic slowdown, and sales of all high-ticket items such as business transportation vehicles were off.
- Undesirable characteristics. Several pilots who tried flying the Starship noted its significant phugoid tendency, in which the nose continually rises and falls during otherwise level flight, as if "hunting" for the correct flight attitude.
End of the program
In 2003, Beechcraft deemed that the aircraft was no longer popular enough to justify its support costs, and has recalled all leased aircraft for scrapping. The company was also said to be buying back privately-owned Starships, though some Starship owners say they have never been contacted by Raytheon about this. Raytheon's spin-off, Hawker Beech Corporation, continues to offer technical support by phone but no longer offers parts support to current Starship operators. Rockwell Collins has maintained full support for the AMS-850 avionics suite. In March 2008, the third of the five remaining Starships completed RVSM certification returning the aircraft's service ceiling to the original FL410 limit.
Almost all of the recalled Starships have been ground up and incinerated at the "boneyard" at the Evergreen Air Center located at the Pinal Airpark in Arizona. The planes have little aluminum for recycling. A few have been purchased by individuals who regard them as lovable failures, much like the infamous Ford Edsel.
Starship Model 2000A NC-51 was used as a chase plane during the re-entry phase of Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne. Several Starships have been donated to museums since the decommissioning program began, with the Kansas Aviation Museum receiving the first aircraft in August 2003. Starship N214JB is displayed at the Southern Museum of Flight adjacent to the Birmingham International Airport in Alabama.
As of autumn 2008 only six Starships continue to hold airworthiness registration with the FAA. Three Starships are based in Oklahoma, one in Washington, one in California, and one is still registered to Raytheon Aircraft Credit Corporation in Wichita, Kansas.