The Beechcraft Starship was a failed 1980s business turboprop designed with Scaled Composites as the successor of the King Air. Aviation is one of the most technologically dynamic fields in the world, and failure happens as often as success.
The collaborative design by Beechcraft and Scaled Composites was a work of art. It was the first time carbon fiber had been used extensively in a business aircraft. Even so, the original goal of 2500 lbs maximum ramp weight may have been too optimistic.
While the Starship should have had an eye-watering performance, its numbers remained respectable across the board even after its weight ballooned well past the target.
If to put the romance aside, the failures of the Starship were understandable. Beechcraft had gone for levels of cutting edge usually found in high-priority military contracts instead of general aviation.
The aim to make an aircraft entirely out of composites, with a wholly unconventional configuration, a pair of powerful PT6 turboprop engines, and still have it not require a type rating rode the thin line between genius and lunacy.
Still, it is hard not to root for the Starship. I am a firm believer that innovative projects like these are what drive aviation forwards. Today, composite constructions have become the industry standard in modern aviation. Those who never lost faith in the Starship keep these machines flying.
Explore all about the Beechcraft Starship with our Beechcraft Starship guide and specs, keep reading for more!
Bottom Line Up Front
The Beechcraft Starship is a composite business aircraft with no tail, a swept wing, and variable geometry canards. It uses two Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-67 turboprop engines in a pusher configuration. The Starship seats up to eight passengers. The aircraft performed poorly in the market, and only six remained operational as of 2020.
The History of the Beechcraft Starship
Dreaming Up the Beechcraft Starship
Most aircraft undergo a quiet, predictable evolutionary path. This applies to most Beechcraft products besides the Starship.
The venerable Twin Bonanza grew into the more powerful Queen Air, which in turn gained a pair of turboprop engines to become the King Air. Thanks to a new T-tail and uprated PT6A engines, the design culminated in the Super King Air in the 1970s. Once a family hits a wall and cannot be reasonably upgraded, that is when engineers make work their magic. Such was the predicament of Beechcraft in 1979.
The Super King Air, like its predecessors, was performing well in the market. However, the limitations of the aerodynamic configuration that had changed little from the immediate post-war designs were clear. Between 1979 and 1980, engineers at Beechcraft toiled away to establish the overall concept and performance goals. The result of this work was Preliminary Design 330.
At first glance, PD 330 looked like a sci-fi movie prop. The company wanted carbon fiber as the primary structural element to save weight and extend the airframe’s life. The same Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A engines that powered multiple King Air iterations made it to PD 330, now in a pusher configuration.
From Idea to Aircraft
Beechcraft had no illusions about how ambitious the plan was. In 1982, after completing a merger with Raytheon, the company contracted Scaled Composites to help validate and refine the concept.
Aviation composites pioneer Burt Rutan founded the company that same year in California after making a name for himself with revolutionary homebuilt aircraft. Rutan had his breakthrough in the late 1970s with this second project, the VariEze.
It only takes a quick glance at the VariEze to realize why Beechcraft entrusted the design to Rutan and his company. The aircraft has a moldless fiberglass structure, swept wings with large winglets, and canards on the nose.
With space for the pilot and one passenger, with a single engine, the VariEze could fly out to 740 nautical miles. Burt Rutan refined the design to create the Long-EZ, which hit an incredible 1750 nmi. In an ironic twist, this figure would exceed the range of the Beechcraft Starship following its gutting by the FAA.
Keeping up with the futuristic vision for the aircraft, Rutan and Scaled Composites used the Dassault CATIA to design and refine the Starship. The program launched in 1982 but is now the leading CAE (computer-aided engineering) suite. The time from contract to rollout was nine months.
The resulting proof of concept was the Model 115, built on an 85% scale. The aircraft had the same overall lines and layout as the upcoming Starship, but most similarities ended there. The Scaled Composites Model 115 used different materials and had barebones interior with no pressurization and simpler avionics.
After first taking to the air in March 1983, the Model 115 technology demonstrator embarked on an intensive test flight program that saw it fly its first 100 hours in 35 days. Model 115 validated the concept and gave plenty of feedback to Beechcraft. The main change from the original proposal was that the canards now had variable geometry.
Building the Starship
The Beechcraft Starship, company designation Model 2000, used carbon fiber across the airframe instead of the typical aviation aluminum. Despite plenty of preparation working with Scaled Composites, Beechcraft ran into multiple issues when manufacturing the prototypes.
Making an aircraft out of carbon fiber differs from building one out of aviation aluminum. The tooling used on the prototypes also had to be used in full-scale production. The company worked on several prototypes before knowing what the final design would look like.
The first prototype, NC-1, flew on February 15, 1986. As the primary aerodynamics testing platform, NC-1 had an ejection seat. Its cockpit used a simple steam gauge panel akin to the one on the Model 115 scaled-down unit.
The first set of the Rockwell Collins AMS-850 avionics suite appeared aboard NC-2, which served as a dedicated avionics and systems testbed. The Starship was the first aircraft in its class designed with a glass cockpit, albeit a primitive one. NC-3 spent most of its time testing the flight management system and the Pratt & Whitney PT6A turboprop engines.
The FAA Strikes Back
Introducing a maverick design always has a degree of associated risk and scrutiny from regulatory agencies. Beechcraft was clearly not prepared for the pushback from the Federal Aviation Administration.
The FAA had never certified a civilian design that was this reliant on composite materials in structural sections. The story goes that while the agency was genuinely impressed with the concept, it could not certify it without some reinforcement and structural redundancy.
This requirement set off a chain event that saw the Starship balloon from a targeted maximum ramp weight of 2500 lbs to over 15000 lbs. Beechcraft added structural reinforcements to the wings and fuselage, reinforcing adjacent sections to cope with the added weight.
Many Starship enthusiasts argue the FAA and its overzealous approach are to blame for the failure of the aircraft. As the plane became heavier, it failed to meet its stated performance goals. At the same time, production had become more expensive, and it now was at a bracket that required a type rating to fly.
Launch and Crash
When the Beechcraft Starship finally hit the market in 1989, its prospects looked grim. High fuel prices and the need for a type rating made the Starship fail its goal of replacing the King Air.
The costs of acquiring a Starship were not far from those of smaller Learjet or Citation models. While the jet fuel consumption remained much higher, it compensated with performance.
Between 1989 and 1992, Beechcraft sold a measly eleven aircraft. The company tried to tempt new clients with lease options, but this did not save the Starship program. After $300 million in development and production costs and only 53 aircraft produced, Beechcraft ended production in 1995.
Despite the market woes, owners of the Starship fleet were enthusiastic about the aircraft, but their joy was short-lived. Producing spare parts and offering support for so few aircraft had dwindling returns for Beechcraft, so the company decided to terminate the program.
Beechcraft compensated buyers by buying back Starships and moving them to the Evergreen Air Center in Arizona for destruction. The composite construction of the aircraft made traditional recycling not feasible.
The Last Starships
A select few Starship operators saw the commercial catastrophe as an opportunity. Starting in 2004, owners who still believed in the project began purchasing Starship parts and some airframes slated for destruction to keep their own flying.
In 2020, there were six flying Starships out of 53 built. As for Beechcraft, the trauma of the Starship failure pushed its engineers towards more traditional, predictable designs. All new models introduced after 1995 use simple aerodynamic configurations validated by other aircraft.
What Went Wrong?
The list of things that did not go wrong in the Starship development, production, and introduction would be a shorter read. Still, it would be a disservice to the Starship to not study why it failed.
I hate to put the appeal of innovation aside, but someone at Beechcraft should have. Taking risks is what moves aviation forwards, but they must be calculated.
When drawing up the Starship requirements, the company correctly identified that using turboprop engines was mandatory to mitigate the effects of oil prices. However, Beechcraft also decided that only a brand-new design could survive the modern age, which sounds ridiculous today when new King Air airframes are still in production.
Choosing composite materials as the heart of the structure looked sound on paper, but doing so as a private endeavor blindsided the FAA. Innovative projects of this magnitude often recruited work groups in the FAA or NASA to consolidate the idea and make certification smoother.
The pusher configuration yielded more thrust for a given power rating. The Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A is not a light engine, and adding two 500 lbs bricks at the very tail of the aircraft sent the center of gravity to the rear, which forced the design to use an aggressive wing sweep for a turboprop. While this configuration has plenty of benefits as you approach Mach 1, there are only stability downsides at turboprop speeds.
Flight tests with the Starship NC-1 showed that stall behavior was tricky due to the size of the canards. Beechcraft added a variable-sweep mechanism to help adjust the lifting surface to the flight regime. This added weight and maintenance costs.
Perhaps the main mistake during the Beechcraft Starship disaster was that nobody said no in time. The number of red flags coming up during the Starship conception would have made most companies cancel it. Beechcraft, invigorated by its acquisition by Raytheon, never stopped believing in the project until it was too late.
Beechcraft Starship / Specs
The Beechcraft Starship is a twin-engine pusher turboprop. It features a highly unusual aerodynamic layout with variable-geometry canards, no tailplane, and a swept wing with winglets for yaw control.
Propulsion comes from a pair of Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-67 turboprop engines mounted by the tail, each powering a McCauley propeller with five blades. Each PT6 on the Starship has a power rating of 1200 shp.
Apart from the unique configuration, the Starship was also the first civilian turboprop to embrace a composite construction at the heart of it. The aircraft is 46 ft 1 in long, with a wingspan of 54 ft 6 in. The Starship is 12 ft 1 in tall on the ground, noticeably shorter than many competitors as it lacks a vertical stabilizer.
An empty Starship weighs 10085 lbs, with a maximum ramp weight of 15010 lbs. To give an idea of the development troubles, Beechcraft had hoped for a value of around 2500 lbs. The maximum takeoff weight is 14900 lbs, with a fuel capacity of 534 gallons.
The Starship can carry up to eight occupants, including at least one pilot. The pressurized cabin typically has one row of seats facing forwards plus four in a club configuration. The flat floor and large windows make it feel more spacious than it is. The aircraft has a lavatory but no galley.
The Beechcraft Starship was the first aircraft designed with a glass cockpit from the ground up, with a Rockwell Collins AMS-850 suite. The arrangement is a perfect snapshot of the transition from steam gauges to glass cockpits in the late 1980s and 1990s.
Unlike modern digital systems that use multifunctional displays, the AMS-850 has individual digital boxes for each instrument. I find the aesthetics endearing, but most pilots describe operating it as a nightmare.
Beechcraft Starship / Prices
After sinking $300 million in developing the aircraft, Beechcraft launched the Starship with a list price of $3.9 million. This rose to $4.7 million in 1993. The high cost and subsequent increase did little to help save a project that was also more expensive to operate than other aircraft in its class.
To understand how far the Starship pricing had gone, the Learjet 31 from that same year sold for $4.5 million, with similar payloads, a matching range, and much better performance. Unlike the Starship, the Model 31 sold an impressive 246 units between 1990 and 2003.
Beechcraft attempted to boost Starship deliveries with a lease program. In 1992, the price of the monthly lease sat at around $25000. Many took the offer, but the conversion from lease to sale was below expectations.
Beechcraft Starship / Performance and Handling
The predicted and actual performance of the Beechcraft Starship are worlds apart. The company was overly optimistic about the certification process. As a result, the aircraft ended up with almost 10000 lbs of added weight. This made the original performance goals unachievable.
The Beechcraft Starship has a top speed of 335 knots and a nominal cruise speed of 307 kts. In landing configuration, it stalls at 97 kts. On paper, the aircraft has a service ceiling of 41000 ft.
Surviving aircraft need aftermarket upgrades to achieve Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum (RVSM) certification. The Starship has a climb rate of 2748 feet per minute.
The range is the most disappointing performance metric on the Starship. At 1510 nmi, it falls short of even the baseline Super King Air. This requires flying at the economical cruise speed of 295 knots.
At its maximum weight, the Starship requires 4093 ft to takeoff and clear a 50 ft obstacle. The landing run is shorter for similar conditions, at 2630 ft.
A quick glance at these numbers shows that Beechcraft Starship is not a poor performer. This opinion usually changes after seeing what Beechcraft expected from the aircraft.
The initial projections called for a top speed of 352 knots, a dirty stall speed of 79 knots, and a mighty range of 2500 nmi.
The aerodynamic configuration of the Beechcraft Starship has very benign handling characteristics. The variable geometry canards keep the aircraft stable across the envelope and make stalls docile. The canards stall before the actual wing, making the nose drop and making for a smooth recovery without much pilot input.
The stability of the Starship gives it very stiff handling, making the aircraft tiring to fly over long periods. The roll axis is particularly heavy compared to all aircraft in its class.
Beechcraft Starship / Maintenance Schedule
As Raytheon watched the Starship flounder after its launch, the company tried a last-ditch effort to attract buyers. Beechcraft Starship became free at Raytheon Aircraft Services (RAS).
RAS worked on both privately owned and leased Starships, but the execution was botched by private interests. The company was eager to perform inspections and maintenance on Starships because they knew that Raytheon would foot the bill in the end.
Existing owners were happy to get free additional checks and parts overhauls or replacements in exchange for short downtime.
The gung-ho approach to working on the Starship earned RAS millions. The endless billings eventually led Raytheon to see the aircraft as a maintenance hog beyond saving. On top of this, the greater public began feeling the same after seeing the RAS bills, which scared prospective buyers.
The RAS maintenance program debacle pushed Raytheon to end support for the Starship.
Beechcraft Starship / Modifications and Upgrades
Towards the end of the production run, Beechcraft introduced the Model 2000A modification of the Starship. The upgrade was applied from NC-29 to NC-53 in the factory, while NC-4 and NC-28 could be brought up to Model 2000A through a kit.
The main changes in the Model 2000A were stall speeds, lowered by 9 knots, and an additional 31 gallons of fuel capacity. As with most Starship changes, the aircraft again became heavier, with a 400 lbs increase in empty weight.
Beechcraft Starship / Where to Find Replacement Parts
Where to reliably find Starship parts is a million-dollar question. The owners of the six remaining Beechcraft Starships plan to keep them flying and have launched concerted campaigns to secure a steady supply of spare parts for their aircraft.
In 2004, Robert Scherer acquired the entire parts inventory stocked by Raytheon to keep his Starship flying in Colorado. To further compound the problem, Rockwell Collins ended support for the avionics suite on the Starship around the same time.
Anyone considering picking up a surviving Starship today should check if it comes with plenty of spares. If the answer is no, this aircraft is on a one-way train to become a hangar queen.
Beechcraft Starship / Common Problems
Despite being a commercial nightmare for Beechcraft, most operators that did commit to the Starship have found it smooth to operate. The aircraft is sturdy and boasts great dispatch rates so long as spares are available.
Starship pilots dislike the heavy controls and cluttered cockpit layouts. I cannot pin these as common problems as they are design issues.
Beechcraft Starship / Insurance Options
There are no standard packages available for the Beechcraft Starship. Owners have to pen deals on a case-to-case basis or fly uninsured.
Beechcraft Starship / Resale Value
The small sales run, lack of spares, and disposal of most Starships have made finding one in the market almost a miracle. This makes it hard to set a resale price for the aircraft.
Something unique happened in 2011: two of the six airworthy Starships were on the market. NC-50 was sold in Washington for $1.4 million, while NC-29 retailed for $1.6 million in Oklahoma. The second offering included NC-43, without engines, for cannibalization.
Beechcraft Starship / Owner Reviews
The Starship was an unmitigated disaster for Beechcraft and Raytheon. Some of its few owners have found it a trusty workhorse with the proper treatment.
The Narayanan brothers use two Starship airframes, NC-50 and NC-33, to support their company, Aerospace Quality Research, and Development. They chose the Starship over competing models because the composite airframe aged without the specters of metal fatigue or corrosion.
Most Starship operators who spent many years with the aircraft love its reliability. In seven years, the owner of NC-51 logged 698 departures out of 700 planned flights, which works out to an eye-watering 99.7% dispatch rate. This was achieved with maintenance costs lower than those for a Beechcraft King Air B200 flying a similar profile.
From the cockpit, there are two gripes about the Starship. The first one is the excessive stability on all axes. This leads to heavy controls and fatigue on long flights. Rolling is even stiffer than the infamous Cessna 310.
The other gripe is the avionics suite. The Starship was the first aircraft in its class to use a glass cockpit by design, but Beechcraft attempted this when the technology was still nascent.
The AMS-850 was already obsolete when the Starship hit the market. Its cumbersome interface makes data entry and management a nightmare. Even pilots with thousands of Starship hours say that a couple of weeks without flying will get them rusty and confused once they return.
Beechcraft Starship / Similar Aircraft
When discussing a unique aircraft like the Beechcraft Starship, the topic of similar or comparable aircraft does not come up very often. However, the Starship is not as alone as it may seem.
Rutan VariEze and Long-EZ
From a visual and conceptual point of view, the Rutan VariEze and Long-EZ count as the predecessors of the Starship. Their inventor, Burt Rutan, went on to found Scaled Composites, which was responsible for the proof of concept and early prototyping of the Beechcraft Starship.
Beechcraft and Scaled Composites adopted the general aerodynamic configuration of the VariEze into the Starship, though the kit builds had a sleeker cockpit resembling a fighter rather than the business-like cabin of the Starship.
Piaggio P.180 Avanti
While Beechcraft stumbled through the Starship development and sales, Italian manufacturer Piaggio Aero embarked on a similarly ambitious project. The Piaggio P.180, aptly named Avanti (Italian for ahead), also uses a pair of Pratt & Whitney PT6A engines in a pusher configuration and has canards.
The Italian manufacturer made a lot of safer choices. The Avanti engines are mounted on straight wings. The aircraft features a high-T tailplane with a swept horizontal stabilizer.
The Piaggio design found considerable success and has been in continuous production for over three decades. The P.180 Avanti cruises at 300 knots and has a range of 1400 nautical miles.
Beechcraft Starship / Clubs You Can Join
With a measly six aircraft flying, no clubs serve Starship owners. You can find former operators and pilots in forums for Beechcraft aircraft like BeechTalk.com.
Question: How many Beechcraft Starships are airworthy?
Answer: As of 2020, six out of the 53 units built remain airworthy. The pilots and operators of the surviving Beechcraft Starship fleet remain firm believers in the aircraft.
This commitment to keeping these six aircraft flying has made it nearly impossible for new Starship owners to appear. The few current operators have a firm hold on the limited spare parts.
Question: Why is the Beechcraft Starship so heavy?
Answer: In the 1980s, making an aircraft almost entirely out of carbon fiber was a novel idea. Beechcraft believed the risk was worth it. The company set sights on a maximum ramp weight of 2500 lbs, which would exclude the need for a type rating.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) only certified the aircraft after Beechcraft implemented structural changes. The end result ended up at 15010 lbs. This meant the Starship required a type rating to fly. It also led to significantly worse performance than expected.
Question: Are there aircraft similar to the Beechcraft Starship?
Answer: While the Beechcraft Starship was a unicorn in its own right, it is only one of many civilian designs to use such a radical design. The Piaggio Avanti is the closest aircraft to the Starship in terms of role and performance, though it retains a conventional tail.
The Starship has a lot of distant relatives in the kit market for general aviation. The Rutan VariEze and Long-EZ series have nearly identical layouts, except with a single engine. This is no coincidence, as Beechcraft commissioned Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites to help design the Starship proof of concept model.
Unlike the Starship, the aircraft listed have been built in the hundreds and enjoyed long careers.
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