Some say that Beech and Raytheon's turboprop failed because it tried too much, too soon.
- By Mark Huber
- Air & Space magazine, September 2004
NASM (SI Neg. #9A02243)
(Page 3 of 5)
The program brought together some of the finest minds in aviation. They included D. Brainerd Holmes, a driving force behind NASA’s Apollo program and now president of Raytheon. Linden Blue and composites guru Ric Abbott came aboard from Learfan; Blue is credited with selecting Rutan’s design. Others involved included Rutan and a handful of brilliant aerodynamicists, including John Roncz, an airfoil expert, David Bernstorf, who led the Beech aerodynamics and loads group, Roy LoPresti, a speed merchant who had wrung the drag out of half a dozen airplane types, and Brown. At its apex, 1,000 employees were assigned to the Starship, 450 of them engineers.
Beech’s parent company, Raytheon, would spend a million man-hours and $350 million (early 1980s dollars) bringing the airplane to market and hundreds of millions more marketing and supporting it. Some estimate that Raytheon sank as much as $1 billion into the program. (Raytheon will not provide an exact number and may not even know what it is.) “The cost was a very nebulous figure to come up with,” says former Beech and Raytheon president Max Bleck. “None of our financial people tried to put a pencil to it.” But almost everyone knew that the numbers didn’t add up. An internal economic analysis by Beech in 1979 concluded that if it sold 400 Starships a year at an after-tax profit of $250,000 per unit, for a total profit of $100 million a year for 30 years, it would generate an internal rate of return of 16 percent at a time when the prime rate was almost 20 percent.
When he was president and chief executive of Beech, from 1987 to 1991, Bleck, a former Piper Aircraft president, ran the numbers and tried to bury the Starship program. “I tried to kill the airplane twice,” Bleck says, first in 1987, just months before the aircraft received type certification, and again in 1991. On both occasions, he was overruled by his bosses at Raytheon.
In 1982, the Rutan Aircraft Factory was awarded a contract to build a proof-of-concept Starship for aerodynamic testing. Working around the clock, Rutan’s crew built the airplane, which was slightly smaller than the production version, in less than a year. Beech exhibited the POC aircraft at the National Business Aircraft Association’s 1983 convention in Dallas and announced the aircraft’s target price: $2,742,500. The response was a collective gasp. This was potentially the biggest new thing since the Learjet.
Skeptics doubted that the aircraft would make its aggressive two-year certification schedule, that it would come in under 12,500 pounds gross weight, and that it would win acceptance from a conservative market. They were right. The Starship would not gain FAA certification until 1988. Its empty weight would increase by 2,400 pounds and its gross weight would balloon to 14,900 pounds. Originally designed for a pair of 750-shaft-horsepower engines, the weight gain forced designers to adopt thirstier 1,200-horsepower engines. The diameter of the propellers would grow from 94 inches to 105 inches. It also lost two passenger seats. And by the early 1990s the price would inflate to $5.3 million. Despite the excitement and the aura Rutan brought to the project, the button-down world of business aviation was not ready for an airplane that had become a moving target.
For the skeptics, including those at Raytheon, the proof-of-concept aircraft became the focal point of criticism. The POC was unpressurized, made of fiberglass rather than carbon fiber, and had a higher thrust-to-weight ratio than the production aircraft. Critics deemed it too different to be proof of anything. Bleck called the POC “virtually worthless.” Rutan and others, including Bill Brown and Beech test pilot Tom Carr, disagree. Intended to fly only 100 hours, the POC would log more than 500 between 1983 and 1986 and provide important data that affected the final design. Rutan got the POC contract on August 25, 1982. Beech started designing tooling for the production Starship six days later. Had the POC flown before tools for production aircraft were built, its impact on the Starship could have been far greater. After the POC program ended, Raytheon had the airplane destroyed in full view of those who had built it. Rutan’s staff salvaged a few mementos, including the data plate.
As tensions grew between Rutan and Beech, they also increased between Beech and Raytheon. Beech’s genteel culture buckled under the often abrupt ways of its new parent. Since 1950, Beech had been run by Walter Beech’s much younger widow, Olive Ann. Mrs. Beech would put yellow “happy face” stickers on the office doors of meritorious executives. Company picnics were courtly, civilized affairs.
It wouldn’t be long before the Raytheon clamps were tightened. The old ways were gone, Mrs. Beech stepped aside, and the door to the president’s office began revolving. Occupants were either kicked upstairs to corporate headquarters in Massachusetts or shown the door. During the Starship’s development, from 1982 to 1989, Beech had three presidents and four engineering vice presidents, creating certification delays and performance compromises.