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Starship

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Why didn't the Starship sell well?

1)  Revolutionary design.  

The aviation community accepts new concepts slowly and evolution is generally preferred over revolution.  While many potential buyers were awestruck by the Starship's beauty, most chose to sit on the fence for a few years to see if the Starship proved to be a viable design.  The Starship was radically different from conventional aircraft when introduced in the mid 1980's and heralded four revolutionary technologies:

a)  First certificated all glass cockpit and FMS

b)  First certificated all composite business class aircraft (still the only certificated composite wing)

c)  First certificated tandem wing (canard) aircraft.

d)  First certificated business class twin turboprop pusher  

We all now know that the glass cockpit is superior to steam gauges and that composites are superior to metal for airframe construction.  The canard vs. conventional configuration is still a topic of heated debate, however.  All I can say is, why in the world would you want to have a tail mounted stabilizer that pushes DOWN when the basic purpose of an aircraft is to lift you into the air?  But most aerodynamicists I've spoken with argue that the canard's forward wing is so heavily loaded that the resulting drag leads to no gain in efficiency over a tail in back design.  It also seems to be true that pusher props are no more efficient than a tractor.  That's because the airflow to the props is disturbed by the fuselage and wing ahead of them.  But a pusher definitely creates a much quieter cabin and far less vibration than a tractor.  The Starship is extremely quiet inside and cabin noise levels seem more like a jet than a turboprop.  Normal conversations can be had without raising your voice and virtually no vibration can be felt inside the airplane.  A pusher design also allows the propellers to be mounted very close together because they don't have a fuselage between them.  The Starships props are only 8 inches apart, yielding nearly centerline thrust from each engine.  During an engine out situation in the Starship, yaw is virtually unnoticeable and is completely countered by the yaw damper, if engaged;  No need to step on the good engine.  Also, from personal experience, I can safely argue that the canard design yields a superior ride.  Wings mounted at each end of the fuselage, combined with the heavy wing loading of the canard ends up dampening the bumps in bad air.

2)  Raytheon

This section is based on my experience as the owner / pilot of Starship NC-51 and with conversations I have had with other Starship owners, Raytheon employees, RAS employees and other aviation professionals who know the Starship program intimately.  I am interested in sharing what I have experienced and heard.  It is not my intention to criticize Raytheon, RAS or their management. 

a)  Timing

Raytheon had lousy timing when it came to the Starship.  The aircraft was introduced to an anemic market in 1989 during the height of an economic recession.  You couldn't give away an executive aircraft during this period, let alone successfully promote an all new design.  So Starship sales got off to a very disappointing start.  

But by 1995 the economy had become robust and corporate expenditures for new aircraft were in a cyclical upturn.  Just as important, the Starship's all glass cockpit and composite structure had become accepted as superior art by the aviation community.  This is precisely the period when Raytheon could have made a success of the Starship.  In 1995 Raytheon should have "put the pedal to the metal" to promote the Starship's superb safety record and exceptional ride.  But instead, Raytheon opted to pull the plug on Starship production.  Bad timing, again.

b)  Price

Unfortunately, Raytheon priced the Starship at almost $5,000,000.   This was way more expensive than the King Air that the Starship was intended to replace and was virtually the same price as an introductory jet at that time.  3.5 to 4 million dollars would have been a more realistic price point for the Starship. 

c)  Free Maintenance

To help boost Starship sales, Raytheon management had the brilliant idea of offering free maintenance to buyers.  In the end, this program probably had more to do with Raytheon's decision to discontinue the Starship than anything else and helped falsely earn the Starship a reputation of being a maintenance hog.

Raytheon Aircraft Services (RAS) was responsible for doing the "free" maintenance for Starship owners.  To understand what happened, it's important to point out that RAS is a separate company from Raytheon.

As with any service business, aircraft maintenance has its slack periods.  But when RAS facilities had slack periods in the early 90's, many of them found Starships on the ramp to work on.  They would work on the Starships whether they needed it or not and many of these airplanes were still owned and operated by Raytheon.

Even if the Starship was owned by a private party, owners didn't care how big the invoice was because Raytheon was paying the tab.  With nobody questioning the invoices, one can imagine the scale of the billings that took place.

Periodically, Raytheon would ask RAS to explain why the Starship fleet was so expensive to maintain.  And naturally, RAS would respond that the Starship was a very complex airplane that was difficult to work on.  Raytheon accepted these claims and continued paying the maintenance bills.  But in reality, the free maintenance program was a billing machine for RAS and nobody at Raytheon had the incentive to figure it out and end it.. 

So free maintenance resulted in record billings to Raytheon, souring management's view of the Starship and frightening prospective customers.  Raytheon management bought the RAS line that the Starship was complex and difficult to work on, eventually putting the red ink to bed by killing Starship production.

As an aside, my Starship is not maintained by RAS.  NC-51's maintenance costs have been lower than I originally budgeted for a King Air B-200.  In the 8+ years I have owned NC-51, I have been able to depart on 784 out of over 785 flights (a 99.9% dispatch rate).  I'll put that record against any airplane in existence.  

3)  The FAA

Before the Starship came along, the FAA had never certificated a composite airframe, so they were naturally very cautious when approached with the Starship design.  In an effort to err on the safe side, the FAA essentially told Beech that although their design looked good on paper, the design would have to be significantly strengthened to receive certification.

Beechcraft did so, adding significant additional structure to both the fuselage and wing.  Of course, this added quite a bit of weight to the aircraft, so other components had to be beefed up as well, adding yet more weight.  

In the end, the Starship's max ramp weight rose by over 2,500 lbs to 15,010 lbs.  All of these trips back to the drawing board had another detrimental effect;  Certification, production and customer delivery of the first airframes kept slipping, slipping, slipping, into the future.  

The original design was to be less than the FAA's 12,500 lb. limit for non type rated operation.  But the redesigned Starship ended up requiring a type rating to fly, and many owner operators were intimidated by the prospect of going through the type rating process.  Those pilots chose other aircraft such as Beech's venerable King Air instead, which could be flown with a simple twin engine rating.  

The higher weight of the Starship also reduced Beech's projected performance claims for the Starship.  The Starship was supposed to have a max cruise speed of 352 knots, a useful load of  4,599 lbs, stall at 79 knots and fly for over 2,500 nm at max range power.  But after the FAA was done beefing up the airframe, those numbers became 338 knots, 4,710 lbs, 89 knots and 1,575 nm respectively.  But even with the extra weight and reduced performance, the Starship still outperformed the King Air B-200.  This is an amazing thing, and speaks volumes for the strength of the Starship's original design.  

How many other aircraft designs could even fly after such a weight gain, let alone climb to 41,000 feet? All this while actually increasing the useful load by 111 lbs.  The Starship is a truly great aircraft, even with her extra heft.  Imagine how fabulous the Starship would have been if the FAA had certificated her original design.

 

How many Starships were built?

53 - 3 experimental airframes followed by 50 production airframes.  The production airframes were built at Beechcraft's Wichita, Kansas factory between 1989 and 1995.  The first half of production (NC-04 - NC-28) were designated "Starship 1, model 2000" while the second half of production (NC-29 - NC-53) were designated "Starship 2000A".  The 2000A's had a modified interior;  8 total seats (2 crew, 6 passenger) with a private bathroom in the rear of the cabin.  The original Starship 1 had 10 total seats (2 crew, 8 passenger) with a less private potty where the forward closet is located in the 2000A.  The 2000A also had increased performance figures over the Starship 1.  Many of the Starship 1's were modified to 2000A status with Beechcraft kit P/N 122-9002.

 

What are the advantages of the Starship design?

1)  Safety

a)  Stall resistant main wing.

Like all good canard designs, the Starship's forward wing (canard) is more heavily loaded that the main wing.  In fact, the Starship's forward wing has almost twice the loading of the main wing; 72.68 lbs/sq ft vs. 37.13 lbs/sq ft respectively.  The result is that the forward wing stalls first while the main wing continues to provide lift and aileron control.  When the Starship's forward wing stalls, it is a relatively benign event.  At stall angle of attack, the forward wing gently lowers itself to an angle of attack that gets it flying again.  Under many conditions it does not even drop appreciably, but simply refuses to raise the nose to a higher angle of attack.  Under other conditions, you can get the Starship into a pitch buck routine.  Imagine holding full aft elevator through forward wing stall and beyond.  The forward wing will stall, then it lowers itself to a flying angle of attack, then it gains lift raising the nose again, then the forward wing stalls and the cycle repeats.  It's a bit like riding a very gentle roller coaster.  In a pitch buck at a low power setting the Starship will exhibit this roller coaster routine while descending at an average of about 1,000 ft per minute.  Add power while holding the yoke in your lap and the Starship will continue the pitch buck while climbing at 1,000 ft per minute!  The point of all this is that the Starship is very safe when it comes to stall/spin accident potential.

 

b)  Reduced yaw during engine out.

The Starship's aft mounted pusher props are about 8 inches apart, providing almost centerline thrust from each engine. In the event of an engine failure there is almost imperceptible yaw moment.  No rudder input is required by the pilot if the yaw damper is engaged at the time of engine failure.  Also, the Starship's autofeather feature will automatically and instantaneously feather the dead engine.  No need to step on the good engine and feather the correct prop;  Just go to max power and fly the airplane normally.  Nice. 

 

c)  A super strong fuselage.

During testing, Beechcraft dropped a Starship at 17 feet per second and the fuselage incurred no damage.  The test dummies in the Starship's seats sustained lumbar loads of only 1,000 lbs.  Crippling spinal injuries are likely to occur at 1,500 lbs.  Imagine dropping a metal fuselage at the same speed. 

 

d)  Single pilot friendly

The Starship is wonderfully easy to fly and stay mentally ahead of .  The integrated avionics and Flight Management System (FMS) reduce pilot work load and provide enhanced situational awareness allowing him./her to concentrate on flying the airplane at all times.  The flight computers handle all of the mundane chores that used to require an E6B.  Detailed fuel data, Vnav advisory info, 10 second advance airspeed prediction and a litany of other information is always available at a glance or the press of a button.  When a busy controller rifles off a new course, altitude, frequency and airspeed, the Starship pilot just enters the numbers into the appropriate instruments and reads them back directly from the panel;  No need for a pen. 

 

e)  No metal fatigue

Metal becomes less strong (fatigues) over repeated stress cycles.  A metal airplane effectively loses a little bit of it's original strength every time it flies.  A very old metal airplane with a lot of flight cycles, if stressed to it's original design limitations, might break up in flight.  But composites don't fatigue.  So after 25 years of flying, the Starship should be just as strong as the day it rolled off the assembly line.  

 

f)  No structural corrosion

Metal airplanes corrode, especially if they are based near the ocean.  Such corrosion can eat into an aircraft's structure, weakening the airframe over time.  The Starship's composite structure does not corrode.  So it's possible that a Starship could fly for a thousand years while based at the Bonneville salt flats.

 

2)  Super smooth ride

As mentioned above, the Starship handles like a big Mercedes sedan and has an unbelievably smooth ride.  The Starship's great ride is particularly evident in turbulence.  The stiff metal wings on other aircraft transmit turbulence loads to the fuselage with little dampening.  But the Starship's composite main wings flex noticeably in bad air, absorbing energy and smoothing out the ride.  The tandem wing configuration also helps iron out the bumps.  Sometimes the Starship seems to gently rock along it's lateral axis as it makes it's way through turbulence;  A bit like a ship on the ocean.       

 

3)  Quiet cabin

The Starship's pusher props, composite fuselage and interior sound absorption system create a cabin that is unusually quiet for a turboprop aircraft;  Noise levels inside are closer to a jet and cabin conversations can be had at normal voice levels.  In the cockpit, most of the ambient noise emanates from the avionics cooling fans, environmental fans and outside airflow.  It's so quiet up front that you can actually hear the hobbs meter clicking off tenths of an hour.

 

4)  Efficiency, speed & altitude

Even with all the design modifications foisted upon Beech's original design, the Starship still outperforms the King Air 350.  The Starship is 26 kts faster (338 vs. 312) and flies 6,000 feet higher (41,000 vs. 35,000).  And get this, the Starship's cabin is 12" wider and 6.5" higher than the King Air 350!

 

What's it like to fly a Starship?

You might look at a canard aircraft like the Starship and ask yourself if it flies like a conventional airplane.  With the exceptions outlined above regarding the superior ride in turbulence, the Starship flies like any other airplane in the sense that the control inputs are the same.  But flying a Starship is a wonderful experience.  The voluminous flight deck is beautifully laid out for single pilot operations.  The sound and feel of the engines and airframe are at once powerful and poetic.  The composite structure and the twin 1,200 hp Pratts sing a duet of strength and security;  A Starship pilot feels as safe as babe in his/her mother's arms.  The machine feels like the melding of a magic carpet and a Mercedes Benz.  She's strong, smooth and majestic.  

It's also kind of fun checking in as a Starship with ATC, controllers always respond with enthusiasm.  One can't help daydream about returning to earth in a real Starship, generations in the future.  

On the ramp she gathers more stares than a girl in a bikini.  To me, nothing could be better than flying a Starship.  When I'm very old, I'll dream about it every night.

 

Why is Raytheon scrapping it's fleet of Starships?

Raytheon's response:

"In regards to your Starship query, we are indeed decommissioning the fleet.  We made the business decision that because of the low number of aircraft in service, and the specialized parts necessary to keep the aircraft flying, that it did not make sense from a business standpoint to continue to support the aircraft."

What would Walter Beech think?

 

Design refinements for a future Starship II:

  1. Re certify the Starship according to Beechcraft's original structural design;  Filament wind the fuselage;  Shed 2,500 lbs and fly faster, further.

  2. Replace the props with turbo fan engines, thereby eliminating fuselage/wing wake issues.

  3. Remove all but the inside 2 vortex generators on the forward wing.  Starship aerodynamicist John Roncz claims that only the 2 inboard VG's are necessary to keep airflow attached to the trim tabs;  The rest are completely unnecessary.  According to Mr. Roncz, the Starship would gain 10 to 15 knots with this simple design change. 

  4. Eliminate the 800 lb. flap system.  Deploying the flaps reduces the Starship's stall speed by only 5 knots. Without the extra weight of the flap system the difference might be only 3 knots.

 

Robert's email address: Questions@RPS3.Com

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