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Beached Starship

Some say that Beech and Raytheon's turboprop failed because it tried too much, too soon.

Amazingly enough, the first full-scale production prototype, NC-1, made its first flight a mere 28 months after the Starship was announced. On February 15, 1986, Carr and chief test pilot Bud Francis lifted off from the snow-lined runway at Beech Field. Below the pilot’s window was a heart-shaped decal, a valentine for Olive Ann Beech—one day late. The first flight was replicated for Beech employees and the media later, and two more aircraft would join the test program. Between the airplane’s conception and June 14, 1988, the day it received its FAA type certificate, Bill Brown personally signed 50,000 change orders on more than 2,000 engineering drawings. Major changes were being made to the aircraft through the end of May 1988. Brown saw nothing wrong with that. “Change iteration is the way you maximize an airplane,” he says. Management had a different opinion. Down $350 million and counting, it wanted the airplane on the market. Now.

“If it is certifiable, certify it,” was the edict from Bob Dickerson, Beech’s vice president of engineering, in 1988. In the rush, fixes were not done optimally, often with weight gain as a result, while other fixes were not done at all, such as remedying the Starship’s light pitch sensitivity and heavy, almost truck-like roll response. “The FAA did have some issues, and we ended up with a belt-and-suspender type of approach that was an expedient solution,” says Bernstorf.

The results were disastrous for the aircraft’s early reputation. While Beech had gotten most of the difficult new technology right—from the avionics to the composite structure to the variable-sweep canard—it had let a lot of mundane, old-technology things fall through the cracks. The first production Starship, NC-4, was delivered to a Florida-based beer distributor at the summer 1989 Paris Air Show. The air conditioning on the airplane failed repeatedly. Other common problems included door seal failures, defects in bleed air valves supplying pressurized air, and bad brakes. Starships were tarred as “hangar queens,” and one exasperated operator took a Beech executive to lunch and ordered a special centerpiece—a bowl of lemons. Beech eventually fixed these problems, and airplanes with later serial numbers had few if any problems, but in the death-by-whisper world of business aviation, the damage was done.

“What killed that airplane was the reliability issue,” says Tom Carr, who flew 30 of the 53 units produced and logged hundreds of hours training customers. “Once it got that reputation, it was hard to sell airplanes.” And Beech sold its own direct competition: the King Air series, airplanes that flew almost as fast, carried as many as two more passengers, and were known for almost bulletproof reliability. At the 1992 NBAA convention, Beech’s then-president, Jack Braley, told reporters that Starship production would end at serial number NC-53 if sales didn’t pick up. “That was the kiss of death right there,” says Carr. Production ended three years later, at serial number NC-53.

Carr thinks that if Beech had held the Starship off the market for a year to address weight, reliability, and handling issues, “they would still be building Starships today.” Although considered a commercial failure, the Starship project, for those who worked on it, remains the experience of a lifetime. Prior to the Starship, Ric Abbott had worked on high-profile European programs like the Concorde and the Tornado fighter. Even today, he calls the Starship “my favorite program. It was a great time.”

Those lucky enough to fly Starships are similarly enamored. Corporate pilot Wayne Roberts has logged 2,500 hours in Starships over nine years for several owners. He has flown over 60 types of aircraft, but he says nothing handles turbulence better. Since 1995 Bob Bass has logged 1,900 hours in Starships as a corporate pilot for Vertex Aerospace in Madison, Mississippi. “It’s a wonderful airplane to fly, very maneuverable and plenty of power,” he says.

On a broiling summer day, Bob Scherer and I taxi NC-51 up to Burt Rutan’s hangar in Mojave, unannounced. A crowd gathers to greet us, and one of them calls out, “You’re not giving it back [to Raytheon], are you?” Rutan is busy but greets us warmly. To our amazement, we discover that Rutan has never flown in a production Starship, so he, his test pilots, and Scherer pile in and take off. They climb to altitude and shut down an engine, pull full aft stick, and try to spin the airplane—it won’t. After they land, Rutan pulls out a felt-tip pen and autographs the inside of NC-51’s coat closet. As we leave, someone calls after Scherer, “We’ll fix it if you break it.”

Flying back to Los Angeles, Scherer says, “I’m a convert to this design. I couldn’t fly a metal airplane with a tail in the back. Uh-uh. It just seems wrong.”

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