Beached Starship

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

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By the late 1970s, other companies were working on similar or competing concepts, spurred in part by spiking oil prices. In Reno, Bill Lear’s widow, Moya, was trying to finish his Learfan. It had a composite fuselage with twin turboshaft engines mounted in the tail and driving a four-blade pusher propeller. Italian airframe maker Piaggio teamed with Learjet (then owned by the Gates Rubber Company) on a design that became the P.180 Avanti. The Learfan never made it to market, and Gates bailed out of the Piaggio program.

The P.180 is in production today and has finally started selling, thanks largely to Italian government subsidies and the deep pockets and patience of Piaggio’s owners, the Ferrari family (yes, that Ferrari). During the 1970s, Cessna, Mitsubishi, Piper, Swearingen, and Rockwell fielded successful conventional twin-engine turboprops.

Beech saw its domination of the business turboprop market slipping away, and on January 30, 1980, its engineering department issued a closely held report entitled “Advance Design Comparison Studies of Several Unconventional and Conventional Corporate Turboprops and Fanjets.” Months later, Raytheon, a Massachusetts-based electronics firm, acquired Beech Aircraft, and it was not until August 1982 that the program resumed. Advanced projects engineer Bill Brown remembers the day well. “Chet [vice president of engineering Chester Rembleski] gets us all together, turns off the lights, and shows us this movie. In the movie this guy is climbing up a mountain and you hear him breathing and see him slipping on the rocks and clawing with his hands. He is really struggling, but not saying anything. Then he gets to the top of the mountain, puts on his skis, and skis down the side of the mountain. He goes like hell. Then the lights come up. We’re all sitting there puzzled, looking at each other, and Chet says, ‘Gentlemen, we are going to design a new airplane and we are going to do it in two years.’ ” The project was initially labeled 300A, perhaps to suggest it was a new King Air, and later Starship 1, and then model 2000. It was shrouded in secrecy, and most Beech employees thought Brown’s team was working on the next King Air.

By the late 1960s, composites had begun to find their way into aviation, initially in sailplanes. Beech’s own research showed that carbon fiber was at least three times stronger than aircraft aluminum. In the California desert’s Antelope Valley, next to Edwards Air Force Base, a young engineer named Burt Rutan was designing aircraft with a small forward wing, or canard, that made his aircraft more aerodynamically efficient and virtually spin-proof. (When some aircraft fail to maintain sufficient airspeed to produce lift, they have a tendency to stall and enter a spin.) His first design, the VariViggen, used wood. Then he started looking at fiberglass.

Bill Brown was a homebuilt-aircraft enthusiast who had already worked with composites—in his garage. He began making sketches of what a Rutan design would look like if it were morphed into a business aircraft. Beech then approached Rutan about joining the design effort. The company’s designers explored numerous configurations, including pushers, twins, and one like the Learfan, before finally selecting one Rutan had drawn on a napkin. According to both Rutan and Brown, it was not until Raytheon entered the picture that the project, originally conceived by Beech in 1979, really took off.

The aircraft’s systems would be as radical as its shape. The Starship would break all the rules: It was the first business aircraft with an all-glass digital cockpit—a group of 14 cathode-ray tubes in the instrument panel. Rockwell-Collins was tasked with developing this system, called EFIS, for electronic flight information system. The Starship was the first civilian aircraft with a pressurized carbon-fiber fuselage to be certificated by the Federal Aviation Administration, the first modern U.S.-built production civil aircraft with a forward wing or canard, the first without a tail, and one of the first passenger turboprops with pusher propellers (Piaggio was the other).

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.

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