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Beached Starship

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

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A FEW YEARS AGO, STARSHIP PILOT BOB BASS was flying at 31,000 feet over Kansas when he received a radio call from a U.S. Air Force jet that wanted to pull alongside. He looked out the window and saw a $2 billion B-2 bomber join up on his wing. The B-2 pilot was shooting photographs of Bass’ airplane.

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Last summer Starship owner Bob Scherer and I landed in Phoenix, and as we taxied up to the terminal, a pair of excited line service workers pulled cameras out of their pockets and began snapping away. “This happens all the time,” Scherer said.

Twenty-five years after it was first conceived, the Beech model 2000 Starship is still a head-turner, its sleek, futuristic design looking as if it’s doing 400 knots standing still. Last year, parent company Raytheon Aircraft announced that it had purchased most of the fleet, wanted to buy the rest, and would destroy all it could find, calling the cost of continued product support “prohibitive.”

Most of the fleet sits on Evergreen Air Center’s heavy-maintenance ramp in Marana, Arizona, where the airplanes are being stripped, sawed up, and incinerated. Raytheon has donated a few of them to museums, but as of last May, only four Starships remain in the hands of private owners. Scherer, a southern California real estate developer, is one of them. “From my cold, dead hands will Raytheon get this airplane,” he says, echoing the National Rifle Association’s battle cry. “I would have nightmares if they sawed this plane up.”

Raytheon sees no alternative. “Many parts on that airplane are unique to the Starship and are no longer being made by suppliers,” says Raytheon spokesman Tim Travis. “From a business standpoint it was a losing proposition and it always would be.”

But the Starship was flying in turbulence from the outset. For an industry in which designs have traditionally evolved in gradual increments, the new turboprop was the loudest of thunderclaps and completely antithetical—bold, daring, and radically different. From the shape of its airframe, to the placement of its engines, to its carbon-fiber structure, to its digital avionics, almost nothing about this airplane was normal.

The Starship was one of the largest and most advanced business aircraft programs ever attempted, and it bombed. When Raytheon shut down the production line in 1995, only 53 aircraft had been produced. “I had the joyous duty of shutting down the ill-fated Starship line,” former Beechcraft president Roy Norris said in a 2002 interview published in General Aviation News. Referring to the television series “Star Trek,” Norris said, “I made myself a promise that there would be no more airplanes that look like Klingon battle cruisers.”

Bob Scherer flies serial number NC-51. (Beech serial numbers begin with two seemingly random letters, but some think NC signified “New Concept”; others think it was a play on the United Federation of Planets’ starship registration from “Star Trek.”) He thinks the Starship’s revolutionary design and price tag hurt early sales. “It wasn’t accepted at first because it was so radical,” he says. “Plus it was five million bucks, which is entry-level jet zone.” Scherer acquired his Starship from the Tyco Corporation in 1998 after seeing it listed in Trade-A-Plane, a thrice-monthly newspaper filled with ads for aircraft. A Starship on the market today would fetch about $2 million.

The Starship would have pushed the technology envelope for any aerospace company, but Beech was especially conservative. Seeking to replace its highly successful but 15-year-old King Air line, Beech decided in 1979 to develop a turboprop that would help preserve its lead in the business turboprop market, in which it held a 50 percent share. The goal was an airplane that could cruise at 400 mph, carry 10 passengers, and weigh less than 12,500 pounds. (By comparison, a King Air 350 cruises at 360 mph, seats two pilots and eight passengers, and has a basic empty weight of 9,300 pounds.)

According to a personal account of the airplane’s development by former Beech chief executive Max Bleck (Starship History; www.aviatorservices.com/starship_history_1.htm), the company studied designs that ranged from the traditional to the radical, seeking an airplane that delivered jet-like performance at cheaper turboprop operating costs. Soon one design emerged, with aft-mounted pusher engines and a wing with vertical surfaces at each wingtip. It also had a large cabin, one of the King Air’s most appealing features, but its size would make it heavy. “The decision was made early on to build using composites for [their] favorable strength-to-weight ratio,” Bleck wrote.

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