Beached Starship

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

Air & Space Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 2)

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.

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.

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus