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History of the Beechcraft Starship

In the late 70s, the Beech Aircraft Company was on top of the small business aircraft market. The company's King Air twin had achieved about a 50 per cent market share. The remainder of the business turboprop market was divided among Cessna, Piper, Mitsubishi, Swearingen and Rockwell.

Unfortunately, the company's best-selling King Air design was about 15 years old. With such a large market share, Beech executives reasoned that they could only lose market share in the future unless they took a dramatic leap forward. So in 1979, Beech decided to begin work on a new pressurized, all-composite twin-engine business turboprop, a brand new generation of aircraft based on latest building materials technology and a bold new, innovative design. Thus began the most ambitious new development project in the history of general aviation, what would become the Beechcraft Starship.

The leading design had its engines mounted in the rear to reduce cabin noise. It had an aft-positioned main wing on which to mount the engines and balance lifting forces. A conventional rudder would have made a huge sounding board for the propellers, so instead, control of the yaw axis and vertical stabilizer function was assigned to tip-sails on each wingtip.

The King Air's large cabin had always been a major selling point, and the new Beech design had an even larger one, approaching the size of a medium jet's. Increased size brought increased weight, and the decision was made early on to build it using innovative new composites for its favorable strength-to-weight ratio.

The world's acknowledged expert in tandem wing, all-composite pusher aircraft at that time was Burt Rutan. In 1982, Beech approached Rutan and his company, Scaled Composites in Mojave, California, to participate in the final configuration study.

The result was the design for Starship, with its variable sweep forward wing, all composite construction and rear-mounted Pratt & Whitney turboprops. While Beech began preliminary design of the full-size prototypes, Scaled Composites was engaged to build an 85 per cent scale proof of-concept prototype to flight-test the configuration.

The proof of concept was completed in record time, and made its first flight in late August of 1983. A little over a month later, the new aircraft, then dubbed the Starship, was introduced at the National Business Aircraft Association Convention in Dallas, Texas.

When the proof of concept Starship made its first appearance, it seemed to many people like a very real aircraft. It was as large as a 90-series King Air, looked good in the air and clearly performed well. To the uneducated observer, it appeared one could put an interior in it, tweak the design here and there and begin a certification program. Sadly, this wasn't the case. The proof of concept had no certifiable systems and no pressurization. It was not even built out of the intended materials. It was essentially a large flying wind tunnel model designed for a program of 100 test flight hours or less, although it flew five times that long.

The proof of concept Starship's appearance at the Dallas convention gave the impression Beech was much further along than it was, and gave credence to an optimistic schedule the company had announced for certification: the end of 1985. However, by early 1984, many subcontractors still had not come close to delivering their components on time, and there was concern some might not be able to deliver at all. If there was to be a Starship, Beech realized it would have to develop it by itself. This resulted in substantial delays while Beech gained experience with the properties and manufacturing techniques required of resins, fibers, adhesives, composite honeycombs and sealants unique to composite aircraft.

In a more conventional program, production would have taken a back seat to development and certification, but the nature of composite construction -- making parts in moldsódictated that Beech build the Starship prototypes with production tooling, which gave production an equal priority. To accommodate production, the company added a quarter-of-a-million square feet of manufacturing space.

Further delays came from unexpected complications: correcting a pitch damping problem and developing a stall warning system, at the FAA's insistence, for an aircraft inherently designed not to stall.

The FAA was watching the Starship's development closely and was particularly demanding, as the Starship was to be the first FAA-certified composite aircraft. For instance, the FAA required the generation of substantially more aerodynamic loading data than would have been usual for a conventional design, in order to prove that classical loads analysis could conservatively apply to the radical new tandem composite wing design. The FAA did not have established design-life criteria for composite structures, and designed a rigorous test program involving the cycling of the test structure through damage expected over two anticipated airframe lifetimes (40,000 hours), subjecting it to damage repeatedly and measuring its ability to carry load.

One of the greatest challenges to building and certifying the all-composite airframe was lightning protection. It was found that unprotected composite material could be blown apart by a lightning strike. Substantial study and testing was done; for instance, a fuselage section was subjected to 200,000-amp simulated lightning strikes in Raytheon's test facility. The solution was a mesh of fine wires under the first layer of the composite skin, and a ground-plane system to shield the electronics. Lightning current was allowed to flow through and out, leaving only minor surface and cosmetic damage at the strike point.

More than any other general aviation aircraft of its time, the Starship was a child of the computer age; its design, development, manufacturing, operation and maintenance all relied heavily on computer input. A major portion of the work was done on a system called CATIA, which provided a three-dimensional design environment and interfaced with tooling.

The first full-size Starship made its maiden flight on February 15th, 1986. The second joined the test flight program in June 1986, and the third was ready for flight in the early spring of 1987. In the course of a two-year flight test program, they flew almost 2,000 hours, and on June 14th the Starship received FAA certification. The first production Starship, NC-4, went on flight test late 1988.

The five-and-a-half-year development program cost more than $300 million and millions of man hours. For its investment, which included mastering a new technology, building a new manufacturing facility and training a workforce, Beechcraft/Raytheon only built 53 Starships. Production was halted due to poor commercial demand. Of the 53 built, only a small handful were ever actually sold.

This text incorporates material from a number of sources, but draws heavily from a longer more technical history of the Starship by Max E. Bleck, former president and CEO of Beech Aircraft Corporation. Max's original text can be viewed as a PDF from here.

Another fine historical account of the Starship's creation by John W. Kensinger can be viewed as a PDF here.

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