It is increasingly clear that market forces are stifling aviation innovation and preventing designers from realising their technological visions
Raytheon Aircraft's move to buy back the remaining Beech Starships in private hands, and to scrap all 53 of the all-composite business aircraft that were built, marks a sad end to a visionary, but ultimately misguided programme. Coming hard on the heels of the decision by Air France and British Airways to retire the Concorde supersonic airliner, the Starship's ignominious end seems to suggest aviation today is no place for innovation or aspiration.
The Wright brothers would probably regard the Burt Rutan-inspired twin-turboprop Starship with wonder, viewing it as the ultimate expression of the canard-equipped, pusher-propeller configuration with which they found success. Lacking knowledge of the aluminium monocoque structure that became prevalent after their deaths, the Wrights might consider the Starship's all-composite construction to be a logical evolution of their Flyer's wood and fabric airframe.
Unfortunately, business aircraft buyers in the late 1980s and early 1990s did not look kindly on the Starship's unconventional appearance, nor feel comfortable with its non-traditional construction. Beech Aircraft spent more than $300 million developing and certificating the aircraft as a replacement for the King Air, only to see production barely top 50 after a brief, six-year run. In contrast, the ultra-conventional King Air remains in production today, almost 40 years after its first flight, heading slowly but surely towards the 6,000 aircraft mark.
Many would say the Starship, like Concorde, was a triumph of technological dreams over marketing reality, but every step that took Beech along the route to such an unconventional design was founded in logic. The company wanted a stall-proof aircraft with a large low-noise cabin, turboprop efficiency and performance to compete with business jets. It achieved some of those goals, but the Starship ended up too heavy, too slow, too expensive and too late to compete with jets.
The major reason was the new ground Beech had to break in producing a pressurised all-composite aircraft. As was the case with Concorde, the technology was being developed even as the aircraft was being certificated - a well-tried recipe for trouble. Today, Raytheon, which acquired Beech in 1979, credits the Starship programme with paving the way for the Premier I and Hawker Horizon composite-fuselage business jets. But aside from their robotically produced, fibre-placed fuselages, these aircraft are indistinguishable externally from almost every other business jet.
While it can be argued that 100 years of aircraft design evolution has resulted in a small set of configurations that are well understood and extremely efficient, market forces have played a role in limiting the designers' options. Starship is a case in point, as market acceptance rather than configuration issues ultimately killed the programme.
Raytheon's move to buy up all the Starships and scrap them seems a drastic solution to a marketing failure, but the company is keen to be rid of its liability for supporting the aircraft. The cost of producing spares for the unique design is becoming prohibitive, and scrapping the aircraft will keep them out of the hands of collectors who might keep them flying. It is to be hoped that the company will be persuaded to place some of these unusual, if unsuccessful, aircraft in museums. Whether the emphasis of cost-cutting will see other manufacturers act to remove entire fleets of orphan or obsolete aircraft from service remains to be seen.
The Starship story is a cautionary tale of a manufacturer getting out ahead of the market, and paying a hefty price. But Beech believed in its unconventional creation, at least for a while. Today the market rules absolutely, and no manufacturer seems prepared to launch a new product unless there is solid evidence of its acceptability and profitability. This may protect investors, but it stifles innovation.
In retrospect, the Starship may prove to be one of the last attempts by a major manufacturer to break the mould. There was a brief blossoming of creativity when Boeing unveiled the Sonic Cruiser, but while airlines may have been intrigued by its space-age appearance, they were ultimately unimpressed by the real-life economics of the high-speed airliner.
Boeing is trying again with the super-efficient 7E7 and seems confident of greater market acceptance this time round. It is playing with the aircraft's appearance as much in an effort to be seen to be innovative as in an effort the bring the conventional airliner into the 21st century. And a rakish nose and stylish tail do not disguise the fact that cold, hard operating economics will determine whether the 7E7 flies.
Source: Flight International