Rare Aircraft – Beech 2000 Starship

By me

(with nothing still happening in the wonderful world of Croatian aviation, I thought I’d restart my Rare Aircraft series by profiling the incredible Starship… I’m a huge fan and it was only a matter of time before it made it here… :D)

Of all the big GA manufacturers, Beech can be classified – stereotyped if you will – the most easily, most often put into the blanket category of “the Rolls-Royce of the air”. And usually its aircraft fit the description perfectly: elegant, classy and timeless design, superior workmanship, comfort equal to none and not a hint of compromise at any level.

And sure enough, like the Rolls-Royce, when you peel away the glitter, you end up with a beautifully engineered aircraft, built to a specification and not a price. But – again like the Rolls-Royce – when you take a closer look you see the technology is rather commonplace, nothing fancy, nothing revolutionary… for the most part conservative, tried-and-tested technology wrapped into a high-performing – but on the face of it technologically rather dull – product. Bonanza, Baron, King Air, even my favorite twin, the Duke… all excellent aircraft, but none pushing any boundaries – or conventions.

However, every now and then each manufacturer suffers a hickup somewhere along the line, something to break the established pattern. Cessna had one in the form of the ground-breaking Citation bizjet in the 70s; Piper’s high-power pistons – the Cherokee 400 and Pressurized Navajo – raised more than one eyebrow when they were introduced ’round the same time. But Beech seemed pretty consistent and, apart from a foray into the low cost market, remained true to it’s name and brand. That is until they – in a fit of creativity – hired one of aviation’s greatest innovators: Burt Rutan.

Contracted to design a successor to the King Air 200, I like to think that the first thing he’d done was take all of the King Air’s plans and throw them into the shredder :). And then proceed to design something that broke all the rules of the biz-prop world (and a handful of others): the incredible, stunning and revolutionary Starship.

1. A rich man’s LongEZ:

Beginning life as the PD (Preliminary Design) 330 of the early ’80s, the Starship was intended to become the new cutting edge of the bizprop world, a space-age combination of advanced aerodynamics, radical materials and high-tech cockpit systems. This was a significant leap, for while there were a number of conceptually-similar aircraft flying at the time – including Rutan’s own VariEze and LongEZ piston singles – no one had attempted to design something similar on such a large scale.

Despite the world of difference between a homebuilt piston two-seater and a high-flying executive bizprop, the LongEZ seemed a good place to start looking for the basic aerodynamic solution. And while the Starship is not simply a scaled-up LongEZ, the latter’s proven performance – up to 170-180 knots out of just 100 HP – promised a lot for the new Starship.

The Starship's eventual similarity to the LongEZ was everything but unintentional (photo: author)
Even the basic shape of the wing owes a lot to the experience gained building and flying the VariEze and LongEZ (photo: author)

However, translating that shape into the PD330 – a larger and far more complex aircraft – was still uncharted territory, so to have a stab at it and see what problems could/would be encountered, Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites designed the proof-of-concept Model 115. Not a true prototype as such, the Model 115 was an 85% scale PD330 look-alike with a somewhat different fuselage design and materials, no pressurization and just the basic systems needed needed to get it into the air (an approach also used by SAAB when designing their revolutionary J-35 Draken double-delta interceptor back in the mid ’50s, using the Lilldraken, a 70% – I think – scale demonstrator, to test out the double-delta wing).

And it's a good job they built it - because the last time somebody had attempted to design something similar straight out of the box, it'd didn't go all that well: the Curtiss-Wright XP-55 Ascender from 1941. Sharing much of the configuration - but little of the technology - the XP-55 was inherently unstable and very difficult to fly

Unlike the Lilldraken which has survived to this day, the Model 115 was scrapped soon after its work was completed.

2. Back to the future:

Finally satisfied that the future Starship wouldn’t fall out of the sky, the design team set to work on PD330. Much of the design was done on an emerging, very powerful tool – CATIA. While commonplace today, this Computer Aided Design (CAD) program was developed by Dassault for use with later members of it’s Mirage interceptor family, and at the time presented a quantum leap in aircraft design and production.

Not that PD330 – soon to be renamed the Model 2000 Starship – was lagging much behind. By the time it first flew on February 15 1986, it was the hottest-looking thing in the sky… and suddenly yer King Air started to look just that much inadequate :D.

Imagine the impression this shape made back in 1986... and it still keeps turning heads 13 years later πŸ™‚
In my mind the Starship managed to pull off what only the Concorde before it did - get that perfect blend of form and function

But, true to Rutan’s form, the real treats lay below the skin – and on it for that matter :). Built entirely of graphite composites – carbon fiber in today’s speak – the Starship was the first civil production aircraft (as opposed to homebuilts) to have used composite materials to such an extent. Indeed, I think I’m right in saying that the Starship was the first composite aircraft to feature full pressurization, undoubtedly yielding a ton of information about carbon fiber under differential pressure in realistic, practical conditions.

An interesting design bit, inherited from the LongEZ, is the Starship’s virtual inability to stall. A well known phenomenon to EZ drivers, in any high Angle of Attack situation the canards – being aerodynamic surfaces in their own right – would stall well before the wing and drop the nose, keeping the aircraft in full control all the way till it returns to a normal AoA. Given that the Starship was Rutan’s child, I wouldn’t be half surprised to find out it could easily be maneuvered up to that attitude in the first place :).

Another benefit of its novel configuration was a smoother and quieter ride – at least on the inside :). Its pusher configuration meant that the spiraling propwash of the twin 1200 HP PT6 turboprops would at all times be clear of the wing – and any control surfaces it could buffet. However, while it also allowed the props to be deiced by engine exhaust, it too meant that they would be riding in the turbulent downwash from the wing, which gave the Starship the pusher prop’s characteristic, buzzing square-wave sound when heard from the outside. From the piloting point of view though, all the negative bits were offset by – for a twin – excellent engine-out characteristics. You may have noted from the photos above that the engines sit very closely together, with no fuselage in the way… in the case of an engine failure, the remaining one would not produce all that much yaw as in a conventional twin, yaw which could easily be counteracted by the relatively large surface areas of the twin rudders.

But for me one of the most interesting features of the Starship was its cockpit :). Back in the day when EFIS cockpits were getting into their stride in general aviation, Collins had gotten a bit carried away with their ProLine 4 AMS-850 suite – it featured no less than 16 CRT screens! I think a photo and a video will tell you far more than I could, but keep in mind this is the first certified glass cockpit system for general aviation use.

Starship cockpit @ Airliners.net

So many CRTs you could fry a chicken on a longer flight. The two screens with the keyboards are the FMS system, another first on light aircraft (photo from: http://www.bobscherer.com/Pages/Starship.htm)

3. Meanwhile, in the real world…

Sadly though, the Starship also shared one trait with all pioneering aircraft – it was too far ahead of its time. While everything it introduced we now take for granted – witness the successful Piaggio P-180 Avanti – back in the late ’80s that technology was pushing the envelope as far as practical use, and especially production, were concerned. In the end, the all-composite airframe was the Starship’s undoing…

The primary problem was, interestingly, weight, which had set into motion a cascade of issues that made the Starship a commercial failure. At 6758 kg, the production 2000A Starship 1 was 1125 kg heavier than originally planned. This hefty increase in weight – nearly 20%! – was due to frequent trips to the drawing board at the insistence of the FAA, the US Federal Aviation Administration. Being the first certified all-composite civil aircraft, the FAA was – understandably – not all that confident in the Starship’s structural integrity, repeatedly requesting the airframe be strengthened in order to receive certification. Beech had no choice but to comply, which set into motion the dreaded weight curve, with each structural modification requiring some sort of change somewhere else, adding weight and complexity. In the end, the result was predictable…

From a high-flying swan, the Starship had turned into somewhat of a goose. With all the added weight, performance figures inevitably went down, to the point where – at 295 knots in economical cruise – it could be outrun by the “lowly”, half as powerful Piper Cheyenne (though, in the Starship’s defense, the Cheyenne had nowhere near its FL410 ceiling). To add insult to performance injury, Starships were notoriously expensive to produce – despite the prototypes being built on production tooling to keep the costs down. Retailing at a minimum $3.9 million in 1989, the Starship had cost almost as much as the Cessna Citation V or Learjet 31, which were 89 and 124 knots faster respectively. The aforementioned Cheyenne had cost almost $1 million less…

The eventual fate of most pioneers... most of the Starships produced stored at Pinal Airpark

As a result, only 53 examples – including the three prototypes – were built before production ceased in 1995 due to a lack of buyer interest. Many were in fact not sold at all, but leased, hoping to try and raise their popularity and get back some of the $300 million invested in the aircraft’s development. However, inevitably, faced with the mounting costs of supporting a small and complex fleet, Raytheon – Beech’s parent company – decided in 2003 to pull the plug on one of the most innovative light aircraft in history, recalling all the leased aircraft for scrapping…

Starships waiting for the axeman @ Airliners.net

4. I’m leaving on a Starship…

Because people who have the money to buy one of these tend to be a stubborn lot, there are still a few – five to be exact – Starships still flying today. All of them are privately owned, being the aircraft that Raytheon could not buy back – despite their continuing efforts to do so – and represent mostly the mid- and end-production machines of the ’90s:

  • NC-29, manufactured in 1992, currently flying as N8244L (photo @ Airliners.net) 
  • NC-33, manufactured in 1993, currently flying as N8074S
Looking beautiful... (photo from: http://www.bobscherer.com/Pages/Starships%20NC-31%20to%20NC-40.htm#NC-33)
  • NC-45, manufactured in 1993, currently flying as N45FL (photo @ Airliners.net)
  • NC-50, manufactured in 1994, currently flying as N8285Q (photo @ Airliners.net)
  • NC-51, manufactured in 1994, currently flying as N514RS, and the greatest of the lot!
A Starship for a starship... can it get any more fitting? πŸ™‚ Arguably one of the most famous Starships today, N514RS has the chase plane for a number of Scaled Composites aircraft (photo from: http://www.bobscherer.com)
Which one looks more advanced? πŸ™‚ (photo from: http://www.bobscherer.com)

By the looks of things – and by the passion their owners have for them – we may see Starships flying for some time to come :). So when you see Virgin Galactic proudly flying the SpaceShipTwo on the telly, look in the back… and you’ll see something far, far more charismatic… πŸ™‚

NC-6 over San Francisco
Just another day at work for NC-51
NC-29, the oldest Starship flying...

Some very helpful websites which were a great help in writing this:

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