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 4 of 5)
Initially, Brainerd Holmes brought in Linden Blue from Learfan as president, largely to run the Starship program. Blue, today co-chairman of General Atomics, maker of the Predator unmanned aircraft, would last two years. Brown remembers Blue as a “real go-getter,” but others described him as a micromanager who insisted on locating the Starship’s lavatory in the front of the cabin (the toilet was in a cabinet-mounted drawer that pulled out into the aisle, a design that would later be changed), nixed an external baggage compartment door, and thought that spraying water repellent on the windshield would substitute for wipers. Brown counters that the wipers disrupted airflow, and the repellent worked fine except during taxi operations.
The Starship also stirred up cultural wars within Beech itself. From the beginning, the project was an enormous drain on company resources and capabilities, fostering resentment among those involved with other Beech programs. The Starship team was housed in its own brand-new, 150,000-square-foot building and seemed to get the best of everything.
Explains Max Bleck, “People working on the rest of the product line felt the Starship was using most of the resources.” The Starship was burning $500,000 a day. “It was insane,” says Tom Carr. “Money was going out the door at an incredible rate.” When big layoffs hit the rest of Beech in 1984, the “have nots” turned their anger on the Starship. “That caused a lot of problems for a lot of years,” says Carr.
The Starship also created a fair amount of anguish on the manufacturing side of the company, which was wise to the ways of metal airplanes but uncertain about composites. Brown recalls that the first three airframes were fabricated using a mechanized process in which carbon fiber material was automatically wound around a form, or mandrel, by a winding machine—the most advanced technology at the time. Too advanced, Brown says, though it could cut time and cost. As the material traveled through the winding machine, it picked up thick liquid resin from a reservoir and squeezed out the excess using rollers. The Utah company doing the winding was used to doing prototypes and one-off projects, not volume production. “Ed Hooper [chief of airframe design] stayed up for 32 hours straight watching that first winding operation,” Brown recalls. “Then he crashed in his motel room.” Hooper liked the winding process, but Brown says the technology “just wasn’t there”; the tooling kept failing. At airframe NC-4, Beech switched to hand “lay-up” of carbon fiber material that was already impregnated with resin, or “pre-preg.” Workers cut sheets of this material using a template and laid them in a mold, the direction and angles of the overlapping carbon fibers matching the path of loads in the part and determining its strength. A light, strong honeycomb core was sandwiched between two layers of carbon sheets and compressed to eliminate voids. After spending time in the heat and pressure of an autoclave to cure, the part was done.
Tom Carr looks back at the Starship’s complex supply chain and marvels that the aircraft ever got produced. Rutan was building the POC in Mojave. Bell Helicopter was building the canard in Fort Worth. Brunswick, the bowling ball company, had the initial contract for the control surfaces, but never delivered a usable tool or part, Brown recalls. Pratt & Whitney was making the engines in Montreal. Hercules was manufacturing composites in Utah. The propellers were coming from McCauley in Ohio. Collins was developing the avionics in Iowa. TKS was working on anti-icing technology in the United Kingdom. Precision Components was fabricating the fuselage mockup in Detroit. The list goes on. “We didn’t have the composites technology or a lot of the other technologies either,” says Carr. “We ended up contracting parts of the airplane with people all over the world.” But too many parts ended up coming back to Beech’s plant in Wichita at a time when the technologies were new and the rulebook was being written.
To keep the ballet coordinated, a fleet of King Airs flew engineers around the country several times a week. But it was inevitable that the supply chain would collapse. Internal engineering memos show major assemblies and components sometimes being delivered months late. Computers of fiendish complexity operated systems such as environmental controls, cabin pressure, and automatic deicing, and engineers struggled with all of them, even naming one Hal after the robot gone bad in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. They were replaced with simpler systems, but delays mounted up.
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.