The pride of my small aviation art and poster collection is a glimpse into one of GA’s most daring – and star-crossed – new products. It’s time to dig out my prize Starship poster and look back on troubled times at Beech, now that Textron has taken ownership.
At least in external appearance, placing Beech under “Textron Aviation” — along with Cessna — eases that transition. The Beechcraft name has value, earned over 80-plus years of strong, capable, business-like aircraft. A Cessna King Air, Baron or Bonanza wouldn’t be right. Even now, I do a double take at the advanced and speedy composite ex-Lancair now dubbed a single-engine Cessna.
But I’m old-fashioned and tend to look backward. After several decades of soldiering through troubled times, Beech finally has new home and a future. That’s good. But I reflect on what got it there. The Starship project is part of it.
As you probably know, Beech was sold to Raytheon Corporation in 1980 as Olive Ann Beech was stepping away. Beech family holdovers held top executive positions for a short while. Later when Raytheon installed a team of its own, it didn’t go over well. The natives (employees) were restless, to say the least. But between the Beech family and the two detested Raytheon corporate types, there was Linden Blue.
At Beech, Linden Blue was the driving force behind Starship, a radical composite business turboprop meant to advance the Beech product line.
Some perspective: Cessna’s decade of success with its small Citations (and the sales pitch against turboprop speeds) took hold against the King Air. Turboprops were Beech’s “thing” and the company now needed something faster and more modern. It would be a steep challenge; Starship would be the first major “all-composite” certificated production aircraft.
Starship debuted with much fanfare at the 1983 National Business Aviation Association show in Dallas. The Piaggio Avanti also debuted that week. Both were futuristic — pusher props, canards and some or mostly composite construction. From its first fly-by, I was taken with Starship. However, a trusted friend (more plugged into the industry grapevine than I was) hinted that Avanti might be the better airplane.
Back at the factory, not everyone at Beechcraft was convinced, either. Was it just the revolt of old-line thinking in a hide-bound company? Insight into the challenges of bringing this revolutionary product to market? Skepticism about Starship making its performance numbers? Reaction against a product born outside the company?
That’s where the communications guy in me got interested. Long before I got to Beech as director of corporate communications in 1987, Beech management seemed to be doing a sales job on its own employees. I remember a late-1980s marketing department campaign button reading, “I’m excited about Starship.” It was so strained and forced a statement! (So were the smiles on some of those who wore it.)
But a more forceful internal pitch from years before was the kicker. I found it by accident in the art department. It came across like a management dictate.
“Do It” read a short-and-sweet poster message under a strikingly ominous, abstract representation of the upcoming Starship. The message was signed, “Linden Blue, Beech Aircraft Corporation.” An art shop guy gave me one of the last three. There was the implication in his comments that the real message was, “Just Do It” — or more frankly, “Just shut up and do it!”
I did get to witness some of the last throes of Starship development, a story for another time. (There’s a lot to it; I sure don’t know it all but it’s juicy.) Overall, I was struck with the internal politics of Starship — and Beech the company — as they struggled along.
The only other message on Linden Blue’s Starship poster was a telling quote from In Search of Excellence, the top “pop” business book of the time: “The champion is not a Blue Sky Dreamer or an intellectual giant – maybe an idea thief – but above all he is the pragmatic one who grabs onto someone else’s theoretical construct if necessary, and bull-headedly pushes it through to fruition.”
There was some bull-headed pushing going on as many labored to turn Beech’s gamble into a winner. It wasn’t to be. After producing just 53 aircraft and spending at least $750 million (perhaps a billion), they gave up on it.
The poster’s implied commentary about “an intellectual giant” and “blue-sky dreamers” suggested to me the roles of prototype designer Burt Rutan, propeller guru John Ronz, et. al. The notion of “an idea thief” “grabbing onto someone else’s theoretical construction,” intrigues me in this complicated tale. It is a story of outsider innovation, inside resistance and dramatic, risky change for a legacy American manufacturer.
Starship was the beginning of a long, troubled trail for Beechcraft. Sadly, it was symbolic of all its turmoil in corporate transition, competitive challenge, advancing technology, changing buyer preferences, international competition and a wavering economy.
It all must have been so promising at the start, back when — according to former Beech exec and Pacific Northwest distributor Ernie Sturm — he and Linden Blue were flying back to Wichita one clear night. It was over the Rockies under a million stars that Starship was named. It was to be Beech’s flagship amid a universe of sparkling possibilities.
© 2014 Drew Steketee All Rights Reserved