NBAA Convention News

Owner stumbles into Starship support biz

 - October 14, 2009, 1:04 PM

In 1983, NBAA convention-goers who happened to be at the static display at Dallas Love Field at the right time witnessed a bit of history when a radical-looking airplane made a flyby. The flyby was the coming-out party for what would become the Beech Starship, an all-composite canard twin-turboprop that looked nothing like any other airplane ever built or even contemplated. Those who witnessed the flyby were looking at an 85-percent-scale proof-of-concept prototype built by Scaled Composites, Burt Rutan’s specialty outfit. The actual Starship finally achieved FAA certification in 1987, two years later than the projected end of 1985, but actually on time when one considers that new turboprops and jets typically take four years from drawing board to certification. Beech never sold all of the 53 Starships that it built, but for those who wonder what happened to those airplanes, here is the rest of the story.

Love for an airplane, not profit, has resulted in creation of what amounts to a one-man, third-party parts support operation for the iconic Beechcraft Starship.
Doomed to the shredders in 2003 by what Raytheon, then owner of the Beechcraft brand, said “was a sound decision from a business standpoint,” it appeared the Starship–of which only 53 were built after a market for the plane heralded as the replacement for the King Air failed to materialize–would be erased from aviation culture.

Although Raytheon Aircraft’s control of the bulk of the Starship fleet gave it unfettered say over the airplane’s future, back then a group of 10 private owners held onto their airplanes regardless of incentives offered to entice the hold-outs to switch to other company models.

As the move toward decommissioning gained momentum, however, six of those 10 remaining owners let their Starships go in the face of what was then seen as the Starship’s bleak future, leaving only four hold-outs.

Today, only five Starships still fly; one of those put back together after being saved from the shredders. Seven have gone to museums and four other complete airframes without engines also still exist. While their futures as flying Starships remain undecided, the ones that are flying are likely to do so for years to come.

An Offer They Didn’t Refuse
Roughly five years ago, California businessman and Starship owner/pilot Robert Scherer was approached by Rapid Aircraft Parts–the Raytheon Aircraft (now Hawker Beechcraft) subsidiary handling parts distribution–and asked if he was interested in making an offer on a $38 million Starship parts inventory that it was seeking to liquidate.

“After 2003, I became quite concerned about keeping my own Starship flying,” Scherer said, “but I did not have the resources to buy $38 million in parts. Rapid called back the next day and just asked me to make an offer–any offer. So, not having seen any of the parts, although I had read a parts [manifest] they sent, I made them an offer for [a fraction of what the parts were worth retail] and to my immense surprise, they accepted it.”

Over the next few months, 12 semi-trailers delivered the parts from Kansas to California, filling Scherer’s 2,500-sq-ft warehouse from its floor to its 15-foot ceilings, and thus was born Starfleet Support.

Starship parts within Starfleet Support’s extensive inventory include more than 60,000 Beech components, and all those parts–including propellers, actuators, elevons, cover panels and power supplies–were once sold exclusively through Rapid, Raytheon or Beechcraft.

Starfleet Support also provides complete parts support for the Collins FMS 850 avionics suite originally installed in the Starships–essentially first-generation EFIS from whose technology, in some part, today’s Collins Pro Line 4 avionics packages found in mid-sized jets evolved. Rockwell Collins also maintains full support for the FMS 850 avionics.

Starfleet has thousands of original Starship parts numbers cataloged, as well, and all parts include FAA Form 8130s, the “birth certificate” of OEM parts.

While Starfleet Support stocks many as-removed parts from the decommissioned fleet of shredded Starships and while many of those parts include documentation provided by Evergreen Air Center’s Arizona desert storage facility, the documentation is insufficient for flight use unless the parts are overhauled. This quantity of parts does not come with yellow tags, but if necessary, Starfleet Support can assist customers in getting the parts made airworthy.

In addition, there are more than 100,000 additional parts of various types within the inventory, all cataloged for easy reference and retrieval.

“It took about two years of weekends going through some 160,000 parts, sorting them by part number and stocking them on shelves in the warehouse,” Scherer said. “We’ve still got some of the parts not yet sorted, but all the main components are sorted and stocked.”

A Labor of Love
Scherer’s role as the Starship’s main parts purveyor came about more by accident than anything else. “I’m not doing this for profit; no way am I going to make a living at it,” he said. “It’s more a labor of love for the airplane and a way to keep my own Starship flying. But I’m more than happy to be able to support the other owners in keeping their Starships flying. It’s a great airplane and I can’t think of any other airplane I’d rather be flying.”

No one disputes that the Starship is something of a complicated airplane. No cutting-edge, technology-advancing airplane ever is simple and the Starship’s electronic flight instrumentation system is an example of that; it’s a system born at a time when home computer screens were less than six inches on the diagonal. As such, too, a Starship ailment was prone to being misdiagnosed, leaving the owner with a nonreturnable, expensive part.

“That could still happen today,” Scherer said of misdiagnosing ailing–and aging–parts, “but if it turns out the part ordered was not the actual part needed, I’ll take it back [in its pristine and uninstalled original condition] and restock it while sending out the part actually needed. That’s better than before, and we usually don’t get a call for a part we don’t have in stock.”

But Scherer’s parts supply, while composed of mainly new parts specifically built for the Starship, isn’t limited just to new parts. Included in his inventory now are parts from the fleet of decommissioned Starships that were eventually stripped and whose carcasses were fed to the shredders at Evergreen’s Marana, Ariz. Facility.
But, wait, there’s more.

“I got a call [in 2003] from a friend who said Evergreen was selling complete Starship airframes for $50,000 each [list price in 1989 for a new Starship was $3.9 million] less the engines,” Scherer said. “I went to Arizona and looked at as many as 20 airframes before picking out four that I bought.”

Don’t think, though, that like the ubiquitous cherry Stearman sitting in someone’s remote barn waiting for a buyer to happen by with a few bucks that bargain Starships still survive.

When Raytheon found out what Evergreen was doing, it clarified its directive that the Starships at its facility were to be destroyed and not sold, so into the shredders those remaining airframes went.

A total eight of the Arizona Starships escaped that fate, finding their way into private hands, but today only one of them has returned to flying. The future of the remaining escapees–and Scherer’s four–and whether or not they find their way back into the air is uncertain.

Even so, the fate of the flying fleet is equally clear.

While Hawker Beechcraft will answer questions over the phone, it no longer supplies parts and the company declined to comment for this story. But that leaves Scherer undeterred.

“We have enough parts to keep the remaining Starships flying for way past my life, that’s for sure,” Scherer said. “Fact is, Starships just don’t break that much. We get a call maybe once every few days for a part, and [my part-time helper] is happy to go to the warehouse, find it, box it up and send it out FedEx Ground,” he said.

And a prediction by Raytheon/ Beech officials that parts, other than those in stock, would become scarce because many of the parts’ original manufacturers had either gone out of business or scrapped their tooling for Starship-specific items–like landing gear–hasn’t exactly worked out that way. “Some parts are difficult to find, but a lot of the manufacturers are still out there,” Scherer said. “Goodyear, which makes the tires, recently ran 500 sets for us and said they’d do it again if we need them.”

In talking with other original parts suppliers, Scherer said many are still able to support the fleet and will do production runs if the demand is there.

Other Owners Keep Parts
And, because there are only a few owners actually flying Starships, a network has evolved through which they talk to one another about their needs. However, as in the case of Dan Stocks, a Newburgh, Ind. Starship owner and pilot, owners are often found with their own stockpiles. Stocks said he had the opportunity to buy yellow-tagged parts of all kinds once the values of those parts dropped with Raytheon’s announcement of the shredding, most for just dimes on the dollars. He said the parts–most of them, anyway–were collected to support his own Starship and many were used to recommission one of two airframes he, too, bought from Evergreen.

Stocks collected and is storing four sets of certified propellers, six sets of brakes, a complete avionics suite, landing lights, indicators, LCD indicators and windshield sets for when his personal Starship needs them.

“All of us know one another and all of us know Robert Scherer and his parts operation,” Stocks said. “Finding parts isn’t that hard for the size of the fleet it is today. I’m not really in the parts-selling business like Robert is, but if a Starship owner called me and asked if I’d sell him a part, if I had spares I’d be more than happy to help him out or send him [Scherer’s] way,” he said.

Stocks did say, though, that some of the digital indicators built so many years ago and whose manufacturers–true to Raytheon’s predictions–went out of business are getting harder to find. “But the FAA has worked very hard with us in allowing the use of alternative parts for those parts no longer available,” Stocks said, citing the example of digital indicators whose LCDs long ago quit working.

“We’ve been able to find manufacturers whose LCDs, for example, fit the body of the original instruments, and the FAA has allowed the retrofitting of those LCDs in lieu of the originals,” said Stocks. “Of course, the use of alternative parts like that disqualifies the Starships from Part 135 service because the engineering and testing required for parts to be used in Part 135 operations doesn’t exist. That’s not a real issue, though, because there aren’t enough Starships around anymore for them to be used in Part 135 and, besides, most of the owners aren’t interested.”

Stocks said the only Starship parts hard to find are the airplane’s wiring harnesses. After the airplane entered production, changes were constantly being made as engineers tweaked the design and the changes, in several instances, altered the wiring harnesses, albeit in subtle ways, but enough so that from serial number to serial number the wiring harnesses were somewhat different. This has eliminated the ability to get a harness out of one airplane and put it into another.

Stocks said the payoff for someone who has the means to find alternatives is “the [reward] to solve problems when everyone is telling you it won’t work…[finding] ways to be legal and to use the system to achieve and overcome the obstacles everyone said we’d be facing.”

Last year Stocks’s Starship met certification requirements for operating in RVSM airspace and it is the only flying Starship so certified.

Mark Twain once quipped famously that, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” So it goes, too, for the Starship.

Comments

Bob Shaffer's picture

I live in Marana, AZ, not too far from Evergreen, but I pass by the Marana Municipal Airport every day, and there six of the gorgeous things being stored there, trying desperately to escape the grinder over at Evergreen. There are a large number of private and corporate planes of every description at the Marana airport, but the most beautiful is that row of six of these amazing aircraft, waiting to learn their fate. They've apparently been there for four years, I hope they're there, or in private hands, 40 years from now. Glorious aircraft, they still take your heart away when you see them.

Curt Epstein's picture

Bob, the Starship is still one of my favorites. If you could snap a picture of the group of them the next time you pass by and send it to me cepstein@ainonline.com, I’d appreciate it.

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