They reached for the stars

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.

DSC_0091“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.”

DSC_0104 Starship poster ExcellenceThere 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    

Comments

  1. Earl Pilgrim says

    One used to fly up to Olympia from Vegas .The owner spoke very highly of the plane . An all composite construction can be a hard sell especially back in the 80’s .Lots of conjecture re life of the laminate . Boeing is selling them now , but still lots of problems .

    • says

      Let me tell you the composites are not the worry in modern day aircraft or the starship. Testing on the starship composites shows an increase in strength over time as the composite material matrix cures. Starship is definitely art. She is definitely an inspiration to me and hopefully millions of others who get to see her when we bring her places…

      2 of the airplanes in Marana are now dismantled for parts. They gave their lives for NC-33 and NC-50. NC-53 and NC-43 in a hanger out in Marana waiting for a new owner that wants to get another starship flying…..

      any takers?

      raj

  2. Harrell C. Lucky, D.M.A. says

    I flew with my boss in his Starship for two years back in the heyday. He owned 5 airplanes in his life; and said (speaking of the gleaming Starship), “I loved her the most and trusted her the least.”. The Airplane was a photo-op wherever we landed.

  3. Mark H. says

    The Starship was an aircraft I wanted to see succeed. I have always viewed it as one of the most beautiful airplanes ever designed. Yes, it has its faults, but sitting on the ramp next to the other “traditional” looking aircraft, it looks awesome. It is such a shame it faded so quickly.

  4. Mike R says

    As I heard it told by Burt Rutan, the Beech engineers muddled so much with the original design that Burt basically washed his hands of it. He said Beech added so much weight to his original design it was destined to fail the design performance goals. You are right, as I heard it also, the “new” owners of Beech “had it in for” the Starship from the get-go. Very sad commentary….

  5. Greg Faris says

    Bemused by the cross-branding heresy to which the article makes allusion, I was on Cessna’s website only yesterday and smiled to their description of the TTx as having Cessna’s “Safety culture bred into it’s DNA.” I couldn’t help wondering whether the copy editor was even aware of the fact that the Colombia DNA was bred outside Cessna. I share the relief of Textron giving Beechcraft some breathing room, but like the author, hope I do not have to read one day of the Cessna DNA of the KingAir.
    As for Piaggio, I live in a place where one or two are operating daily, and as much as I love the plane, and wish I were in it looking down, instead of the other way, I cannot help but wonder if they are going to run into noise restrictions one day. I know airports where the Cessna 337 is specifically banned for noise. I have Starship posters too, but unfortunately this is as close as I ever got to the real machine, so I can only wonder if its pusher design was as noisy as that of the Piaggio, but I assume so.

  6. says

    I am not sure if my initial post came through. Here goes. I own and operate two Starships. Let me tell you that they are far and away ahead of their time and continue to be light years ahead of any twin in that class. Things to consider are the composite fuselage, and life. These days corporate jets are designed for 10-20000 hours and then scrapped. During that life time at 5000 hours they see heavy inspections and aging aircraft issues from fatigue, stress, and corrosion. Starship sees none of that. Composite fuselage’s only get stronger over time.

    Sadly our society in aviation only wants airplanes for 3-5 years and then recycles them. Starship is not for that business model. Starship is for an owner and operator that wants a life time airframe that will go the distance.

    Starship is still one of the fastest aircraft in its class, highest flying (41.0), most structurally sound, and built to endure. I love the king air but comparing it to a Starship is like comparing a toyota camry to a 2001 BMW 7 series. If you want the longevity of life, innovation of technology, and go fast performance, Starship is it.

    All this being said, Starship was the wrong airplane, wrong time, and not vetted well enough. a Modern day Starship with the proper computational fluids analysis and understanding of composites would be a great airplane.

    Starship is a Game Changer. Accept that or not, it changed the game, and continues to do so. No other aircraft can deliver what it does at that price point.

    Of course I am biased, but I love the Starship. Its the airplane that inspired me like the 747 did when I was a child wanting to be a pilot and aerospace engineer. Starship built my dreams and keeps delivering experiences that no other modern day aircraft can.

    raj
    raj@aerospaceqrd.com
    http://www.aerospaceqrd.com

    • Edgar Boehlke says

      Great Statement you made here, I worked in Germany at a Composite Aircraft manufacturer and I always loved the advanced Design and Technology of the Starship. I just moved to Californis and hope I can see a flying starship once here or even better get to fly in one. Enjoy this beautiful piece of Art.

      • says

        thanks and will do. We keep NC-33 and NC-50 inn KADS if anyone wants a tour. Just got flying NC-33 (trying to get her in shape after sitting for so long) and more to go….

        as long as I ma blessed to be in aviation Starship will continue to fly.
        raj

  7. says

    I had the opportunity to do some consulting work for HBC five or six years ago. I loved working with those folks. I met a number of people who were immensely proud of their association with the Starship and there was also this underlying sense that it had had a huge impact in a less than positive way. When you consider both the Starship, and the protracted development of the Hawker 4000, you begin to realize that you have to look back a lot of years to find the last time Beechcraft brought a clean sheet design successfully to market.

  8. says

    Drew,

    I was at Beech from 1979 to 1986, on the production engineering side of things. I think you nailed it in this article, although it didn’t help that the FAA kept layering on requirements until SFAR 41 was the result. A heavy, fuel burdened, over engined airplane that couldn’t meet its weight or performance goals. A similar story could be written about the 38P Lightning, a 58P fuselage with a single, PT-6A or Garrett in its nose; except that eventually someone told Linden Blue that the airplane could never meet its pricing targets.

    Warmly,
    Dave

  9. says

    There was no further product development, and designer Burt Rutan was on Beech’s Board of Directors only a short time. Beech bought back all the Starships that it could get, retiring them. Product support would have been a continuing nightmare with the new (to them) radical technology. The very first FRP aircraft certificated by the FAA was the Windecker AC-7 Eagle 1 of late 1969, also a market failure.

  10. Dave says

    At one point Beech was so desperate to move these that they advertised a great deal in the WSJ. Lease a plane on a monthly basis for a flat rate. My boss saw it, brought me the article and said, “Hey you are a pilot, find out about this!” I dutifully called and to my dismay, the Beech rep offered a demo flight right away. I told him that I didn’t really think that we would be leasing one. He said he had to meet a quota and it would be fun. He asked where we might want to go. I checked with the boss. We were in San Diego. His AMEX had just been canceled and he didn’t have a ticket to visit his girlfriend in San Francisco for the weekend. So, I told him Montgomery Field to SFO. I invited a local Part 135 operator who might really be a customer out of guilt. The Beech pilot let the 135 guy fly to SFO and then let me (at the time a VFR, single engine pilot with some TW & acro time) fly home. Great ride! A little sensitive in pitch. First all glass panel I’d ever seen. About half way home while in the flight levels, the Beech pilot asked “You are instrument rated, aren’t you?” To which I said, NO. He then nervously asked that I pay close attention and not bust altitudes and get him in trouble. Great and uneventful flight home. Shortly after that, the Piaggio rep heard about it and took me for a very fast and interesting ride too. So my logbook has a 1939 J-4 Cub entered followed immediately by a B-2000. Since then every flight instructor and examiner has asked, “What’s a B-2000?

  11. Glenn Michel says

    This was difficult to read with all the innuendo and hyperbole. I guess that if I already knew the inside story many of these obleque references would make sense. Did Drew define the “two detested Raytheon corporate types” somewhere and I missed it? I’m guessing the Piaggio Avanti isn’t a car or a motorcycle, but the paucity of background for all the references adds up to an article targeted for a few unique industry insiders and clearly not for me.

    • Doug Robertson says

      Glenn,
      The Piaggio P.180 AVANTI II is a twin turboprop executive retractable tri-gear aircraft with pusher PT6A engines with cabin for nine ahead of the wings. It also has a lifting foreplane ahead of the cockpit and high T tail. Pilot and copilot but certified for single pilot operation. Not exactly a good comparison to the Beech Starship as the P.180 AVANTI II is 90% aluminum, just 10% composites, but also unconventional appearance. Also some Italian military use, Italian Air Force, Army and Navy buys. As to Raytheon buy of Beech-they had no prior aircraft manufacturing experience with admin not aeronautical engineers.
      Doug

  12. Matt says

    I remember all of the excitement regarding the Starship in Wichita and the wonderful marketing items released in the midst of it all. They gave away small, 6″ composite rulers that had Starship embellished on them and were a nice conversation starter into a revolutionary production material for corporate aircraft. We build with composites today without a second thought, but the industry had no trust in that material at the time.

    I absolutely love that airplane and it fosters many fond memories of seeing it fly overhead. It’s characteristic sound typically signaled its arrival with just enough time to bolt out the door and look.

    I still watch the videos on YouTube, featuring one of the only examples flying, and think of what might had been. Thanks for the article and I look forward to more in the future!

    Best wishes,
    Matt

  13. says

    Was exciting at the time for me as a young Beech marketing guy but ultimately was terribly flawed in execution. New aerodynamics, new manufacturing processes, and new avionics all added to the complexity and risk of the engineering development. The final product suffered in comfort, range, and reliability. It was always fun to fly and demo as it consistently attracted a crowd, but unfortunately few buyers. It is critical for aircraft companies to be looking to the future but this program happened to be a bit too ambitious.

  14. David says

    I always loved the Beech Starship! Sure hope Textron resurrects it and builds it ! Wouldn’t that be cool! If not, I’ll hafta get the Avanti II instead…. :-)

  15. says

    Interesting. I own and operate two of the last starships. I find them to be excellent and well serving aircraft. Faster and more comfortable vs. anything else in its class even today.

    Starship was ahead of its time – and still is. These days most aircraft are built with 10000 hours LOV’s (corporate) and 10 year life spans. Manufacturers want you to keep it for 5 years and upgrade. Starship was not built or designed that way. It was built to last for a very long time. It is an airframe that is the ultimate aircraft for an owner/operator and someone that is passionate about aviation and flying.

    raj
    raj@aerospaceqrd.com
    http://www.aerospaceqrd.com

  16. William Allmon says

    Well, I owned and flew NC-31 from new till we traded for a Beechjet and for the most part, it was a wonderful airplane to operate. Probably the most irritating issue was the environmental system was always on the blink. Pricey to own!!

  17. Juan Leon says

    It was indeed a very interesting project at a time when general aviation was at a major crossroad. I too was part of the Beechcraft team, having made the transition from family-owned to Raytheon-owned during my tenure in Wichita.

    Some additional observations which may be helpful in putting this into perspective. In 1979 the general aviation industry had shipped over 17,00 airplanes. Then 1982 happened. At Beechcraft we were celebrating the company’s 50th anniversary and had a model of each type built including some of the last V-tail Bonanzas, Musketeers, Sierras and Duchesses. It was the last farewell of the Beech family (Mrs. Olive Ann Beech, Frank Hedrick and Ed Burns) to the company that Mrs. Beech and her husband had founded in 1932. At the same time this was happening, hundreds of finished airplanes were not being bought by the Beech dealer network. This meant that once per month, all company qualified pilots would fly to a hangar in different corners of Kansas (Newton, Liberal, etc.). We would unstack a hangar full of airplanes – from Musketeers to King Airs – and would fly each one for about 30 minutes so as to not have to “pickle” them into long-term storage. By the end of 1983, the industry delivered fewer than 3,000 airplanes.

    Against this background, Scaled Composites and Burt Rutan were tasked with building the “300A” – the internal company code name for the Starship. The atmosphere at Scaled Composites in Mojave was always very exciting. Even though they were only constructing an 85% scale prototype, its apppearance was definitely futuristic. When the prototype flew in Mojave it was a very proufd day for the Beechcraft team – Linden Blue, Ernie Sturm and many other Beechcrafters like me. When the prototype was flown to the NBAA in Dallas in the fall of 1983 it made a slow, sharp 360 over the Love Field runway, landed short, made a 180 on the runway and said godbye with a short-field takeoff. The crowd was awestruck. It was a peak moment in many aviation careers, mine included.

    As an interesting technical side note, Beech was acquiring composite manufacturing expertise from third parties. The actual fuselage and wings of the first full scale airplane were being made not in Wichita but by two companies: Fibertek and Fiberscience of Utah. For the engineers used to the characterisitcs of aluminum, being able to pick up a 15 foot wing section with only one guy at each end and then take a hammer to it without seeing any superficial damage to the surface was truly amazing. I got to work the hammer in one of those development meetings!

    From the very exciting initial concept to final execution, things did not go as well. We will let Drew tell the second half of the story. But in my mind, the ever changing regulatory requirements kept making the airplane heavier. In the end, the performance targets were not met and fewer than 60 came off the production line. But what a marvelous ride it was!

  18. says

    Wonderful article, I had the honor and privilege of working on the Starship at the tail end of the program. It was one the best airplanes I have every worked on or flown in, I really miss the Starship.

    The worsted day of my aviation career was watching one of the last Starships taking off for the last time before it was to be decommissioned.

  19. says

    Drew- please, please touch on the HUGE roll that Government over-regulation & over-complication of the Certification and Development COSTS played in this failure. Put the blame where the Lion`s share belongs. It is very easy to stifle innovation & ideas that way. Ever heard of the HondaJet?? wmr

  20. William Mermelstein says

    The follow on story is Linden Blue and where he has taken aviation. I think Linden and the Starship was too advanced for Beechcraft maybe, but it appears linden should get some credit for all of the composite aircraft we have now.

    Being a leader is never easy, it means being out front, ahead of the rest. Those that cannot keep up fall behind or give up.

    I think a well deserved thank you is due my friend Mr. blue.

  21. Paul Harrop says

    Great read! I’ve always been infatuated with the design of that airplane. Thanks for a great insiders perspective into its sad, early, demise.

  22. Ann Pellegreno says

    Thanks for this item, Drew. Have always thought the Starship a great airplane.

    Had I been a millionaire plus back then, I would have bought one.

    Beautiful airplane. Will await your further word on the development.

    Ann

    • Peter Herr says

      Been at Beech Aircraft Corporation since 1978 in engineering positions, sales and flight operations and seen it all: Olive Ann, Linden Blue, Frank Hedrick, Jim Walsh, and all of them….starry ideas, successful and profitable sales, design and integration downfalls; but one thing remains forever: the Beechcraft brand quality supported by its superior flying handling-qualities and world wide customer acceptance. Drew, thanks for the historic reminders, appreciated. I still lie the motto: “The world is small when you fly a Beechcraft”, not necessarily because of flight times but mentalities.
      Upwards and onwards- Peter

    • John W. says

      If I were a millionaire, I’d buy a new Skyhawk. Sadly, Textron has priced them out of the reach of their target market, and you have to be a millionaire to buy one.

      • says

        Until recently there were 6 Starships stored, less engines, on the north east ramp of the Tucson Marana Regional Airport (KAVQ) They have been moved to somewhere else on the airport, I hope they find a home where they can be properly displayed.

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