Bulk of Starship fleet headed to incinerator

 - July 28, 2008, 10:16 AM

The Beech Starship fleet is being destroyed at the behest of manufacturer Raytheon, which owns 40 of the 50 production airplanes built between 1988 and 1995. In recent weeks the Starships have been flown to Pinal Air Park in Marana, Ariz., near Tucson, and corralled at Evergreen Air Center’s heavy maintenance facility, which at press time had destroyed six airplanes by sawing them up and burning the carbon-fiber sections in an incinerator (EPA-approved, Raytheon noted). The goal is to complete the destruction of the airplanes under Raytheon control by year-end.

As befitting such an unusual initiative, Raytheon did not broadcast its intentions, and only after inquiries by AIN did the company decide, 13 days later, to acknowledge the existence of the program and issue any comment.

The leading question is “why?” According to a company spokesman, “This is a business decision based on simple economics: the costs of supporting the fleet are prohibitive, in terms of creating and locating spare parts. There are many parts on the Starship that are unique to that aircraft. We have a backlog of parts, and we will part out those aircraft that are being decommissioned to add to that backlog.” He also asserted that, with such a small number of airplanes, retrofitting the fleet for new requirements such as RVSM is a prohibitively expensive proposition.

The FAA told AIN there are no airworthiness issues pending against the Starship, and NTSB records reveal no fatal Starship accidents.

The fate of the 10 Starships still in private hands depends on how persuasive Raytheon can be in its quest to acquire these airplanes. “We’re going to be working individually with each of those owners to create a situation that’s acceptable to both parties,” the spokesman said. One sales tracking organization showed last month that eight of the 10 private Starships in the fleet are currently for sale, with one of them listing for $800,000.

If owners choose not to part with their Starships, “that will be their prerogative, but it will be increasingly difficult for them to continue operating as parts become scarcer. There are lots of parts that we did not build that are becoming less available, such as actuators for the forward wing. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to support the fleet,” the spokesman said. Engines, propellers and landing gear from the decommissioned aircraft might be sold to outside parties, he added.

Raytheon Airline Aviation Services, the same organization that supports the Beech 1900 fleet, has been responsible for managing the Starship fleet, and it is RAAS that is administering the Starship decommissioning. Raytheon said it began stockpiling Starships when it became apparent a number of years ago that support issues were mounting. “We haven’t been actively marketing the aircraft for quite some time,” the spokesman said. “In the third quarter of 2001, Raytheon Aircraft took a write-off on the Starships, so it was clear to the company that it had to write them down to [unannounced] market value from what was on the books.”

Outside the corridors of Raytheon, the cost of the program to certify the distinctive carbon-fiber canard pusher twin turboprop is anyone’s guess because the company has never released an exact figure, “and probably still won’t.” But over the years the amount has been unofficially placed at between $500 million and $800 million.

“The Starship was a good aircraft that unfortunately didn’t meet market acceptance,” the Raytheon Aircraft spokesman said last month. Other observers have been harsher in their verdicts over the years. In its May 2, 1994 edition, four years after Starship deliveries began, Fortune magazine wrote of the airplane, “Rarely has a market repudiated any product the way buyers of business aircraft have repudiated this one. If the American Marketing Association were ever to carve up a mountain, Rushmore-like, commemorating misbegotten things, Starship would be there, next to New Coke and the Edsel.”

A Courageous Step

Yet it would be wrong, now that the Starship is facing the end, to crucify Beech/ Raytheon for ever launching such a program. The futuristic design first appeared at the 1983 NBAA Convention, in the form of an 85-percent-scale flying prototype built by designer Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites, as a bold answer to the growing criticism that Wichita had ceased to innovate, that it just continued to crank out the same old stuff and had nobody but itself to blame for the steep slide in demand for its wares. Those who had nothing to lose cheered this brave busting of the mold. Competitors observed quietly, hoping any success for the Starship would not prove expensive for them–in lost sales and in catch-up investment.

The first full-scale Starship flew in February 1986, followed by second and third prototypes in June of that year and in January 1987, respectively. It offered a cabin a foot wider, nine inches taller and nearly five feet longer than that of the largest King Air at the time.

Built of carbon fiber–lighter yet stronger than aluminum–the Starship was intended to carry 10 passengers at 400 knots with turboprop fuel efficiency, and for a turboprop-territory price of $3 million. But by the time the 100-percent-scale Starship had been certified in June 1988 by an FAA skeptical about an all-composite business aircraft (and again in June 1989 after jumping through the many hoops of HIRF testing, and again in spring 1992 as the improved Starship 2000A) the airplane weighed about as much as it would have if made of metal, carried a jet-class price tag of $4 million and could manage a top cruise speed of no more than 335 knots–about 60 knots slower than a Piaggio Avanti or Citation Bravo at full tilt. Weight gain (the final mtow was 14,900 pounds, versus a standard Part 23 ceiling of 12,500 pounds) had pushed the airplane into the Part 23 commuter category, the rules for which were under revision by the FAA just as Beech confronted the issue, greatly complicating its compliance task. Beech’s original stated goal of achieving certification in 12 months was, by the admission of president James Walsh in June 1986, “a very ambitious schedule.”

Beech management would later lay much of the blame for the Starship’s struggles on the failure of Rutan’s 85-percent-scale prototype to function as a valid benchmark on which to base performance predictions and a certification schedule for a full-size airplane. Beech (and later Raytheon) president Max Bleck said in late 1994 that data derived from more than 500 hours of flight testing with the smaller airplane was “virtually worthless” for development of the full-scale Starship. He described the scaled-prototype route as a trap that turned an unrealistically optimistic two- or three-year development effort into an almost eight-year struggle.

Looking on the bright side in 2003, the Raytheon Aircraft spokesman noted that the Starship served as a “springboard for the knowledge and experience with composites that have taken us to the Premier I and Horizon”–evidence that the technological intent of the Starship, at least, lives on.