For many reasons the Raytheon Beechcraft Starship is a unique aircraft. It is hard to imagine that the initial design phase for the Starship started in the late 1970’s. To say that the Starship was ahead of its time is an understatement and even today, it is one impressive machine. The aircraft holds the record for quite a few “firsts:”
* First composite corporate aircraft
* First certified all glass cockpit
* First certified canard wing aircraft
* First certified pusher design
The innovations caused a lot of skepticism from the FAA who was in charge of certifying the aircraft as safe to fly. Due to some overzealous precautions, the Starship ended up 2500lbs heavier than originally planned. The hope was the Starship would have a max cruise of 352kts and able to go 2500nm, but instead it had a max cruise of 338kts and with a range of 1575nm.
So, why wouldn’t a plane so ahead of its time sell well? There is no simple answer. When the Starship first went on sale in 1989, it was a tough economic market and few companies and individuals were looking for a private business aircraft. The Starship was priced about the same as entry level jets and many people were wary of the radical design. After three years of being certified, only 11 Starships were sold. Raytheon, which purchased Beechcraft in 1980, was looking for creative ways to build confidence with potential customers and offered free maintenance for the aircraft.
Even with the upturn in the economy in the early 1990s and with the assurance of the maintenance program, Raytheon sold only produced 50 for sale (which only about half were sold) and 3 were built for the certification program. It would have made sense for the company to continue to invest in the Starship, but instead, they pulled the plug. Not only did they stop producing Starships, but they also tried to buy back all that were sold to have them destroyed. Luckily, not every owner agreed and today there are still five Starships that remain flyable, another five that are on display at different locations, 24 have been destroyed and the rest are used for different purposes.
During a sleepless night in April 2010, I sat watching Starship videos and thought of the idea to start my quest to get a ride in a Beechcraft Starship. I thought it was a pretty lofty goal and wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out, but I wanted to give it a shot. However, with a lot of luck, I was able to connect with Robert Scherer, owner of NC-51 (reg: N514RS – get it? (51) NC-51 (4) for (RS) Robert Scherer – nice).
Robert and I were able to meet up at Oshkosh 2010 and he graciously gave me a tour of his Starship NC-51. Even though she was stuck in the corner of a hangar, she looked beautiful. Then, in January 2011, Robert invited me to take a flight from Aspen to Orange County, CA, but when I got to Denver, my flight to Aspen was cancelled due to snow — sigh.
Then another opportunity arose on the 16th of October. After having issues with the snow last time, I did not want to take any chances, so I decided to arrive a day early and spend the night in Aspen, even though Robert was heading out early afternoon on Sunday. Since we weren’t heading out until 1pm on Sunday, it gave me a chance to check out the Aspen Pitkin County Airport (ASE) earlier in the morning.
Just seeing the Starship through the fence when I first arrived was exciting. I had the chance to take photos around the Starship on the tarmac before it was time to board. There are six very nice seats in the back of the aircraft, but the two best are up front, and I had dibs on the right seat.
Finally, it was time to power up those beautiful Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-67A turboprop engines. From a fan’s point of view, one small downside of the Starship is you can’t watch the blades start up and really, you can’t hear them either. I was wondering when Robert was going to start the engines and he told me they were already going. Sure enough; I checked the instruments and they were running. I took off my headphones and the air coming out of the dash board was louder than the engines — pretty awesome.
The Starship has a built-in electronic checklist and Robert went step-by-step checking everything to prepare the Starship for flight. I had seen photos and knew the Starship had a glass cockpit, but I had to keep reminding myself that they were produced in the early 80’s, not more recently. I became so distracted with the instruments, that I didn’t realize we were on the move — heck yes!
As we taxied out, Robert was testing the all the control services and whoa — the canards started moving. I didn’t realize this previously, but they sweep about 35 degrees depending on the flap settings. This whole time I had been trying to reign in my giddiness, but it was pretty difficult after finding out the canards moved (do not worry, I got it on video, which I will be sharing in a future story).
When we went full throttle and took off from Aspen, you couldn’t wipe the grin off my face. This is what it’s all about — flying. It is hard to describe what it’s like flying in an airplane you have admired for most of your life.
Flying out of Aspen provided some pretty nice views. Whenever I take photos from an airplane, I try to get a part of the aircraft in the shot to give a true sense of flight. The Starship makes it easy; one can get shots out the front with the canards or look back and get a shot with the wing.
Although the Starship is a smaller aircraft, it flies up with the big boys. The pressurized cabin provides a very comfortable climb to 32,000 feet. We were hoping to avoid turbulence, but it got a little bumpy after we reached altitude. Although most people do not enjoy bumps, this provided me with the opportunity to see how the Starship handles turbulence. In the Starship, it’s like riding a wave, not as much of the jerky bouncing and due to the flexing of the carbon fiber main wing, the high wing loading of the forward wing and the fact that your seated between the two wings.
Our flight plan included a stop in Page, AZ (PGA) for fuel. Now, the question was, should we go on a normal and boring approach into the airport or fly over Lake Powell up into Page? Yea, let’s go up the lake… what a great call!
Although I was enjoying every second of flying above the lake, I was bummed that there weren’t more boats down below to enjoy it as well. Could you imagine relaxing on your boat on the lake and then all of a sudden having a Beechcraft Starship fly overhead? Even if you were not an aviation fan, that would be quite a cool thing to see.
When we landed at Page to get fuel, two pilots with Great Lakes Airlines came out and watched us taxi. One of the airport workers came running out and broke out his camera. It felt like we were superstars and Robert explained this is quite common. One of the pilots was elated, saying he never thought he would actually see a Starship. Robert was very gracious and welcomed them both to go check out his aircraft while we headed inside for some shade.
After about an hour on the ground, it was time to continue our journey to Orange County, CA. Right after we took off, we made a turn right over Glen Canyon Dam, and damn, does it look small from the Starship.
Back up to about 32,000 feet, heading towards our destination: SNA. The rest of our flight was smooth and uneventful — well as uneventful as flying in a Starship can be. Even after the three hour flight (we had head winds over 90kts), I was in awe of this plane.
The Starship is more than just a unique aircraft. For those who love aviation, it is a golden jewel. Since I have started writing about the plane, I have received many emails from folks sharing their stories about their experiences with Starships; from those who have seen them fly overhead to previous owners who explained that they have regretted giving up their Starship. Many folks have even had false sightings, where they think they see a Starship, but really it is a similarly configured Piaggio P.180 Avanti.
A huge thank you to Robert and his family for allowing me to hitch a ride. It was truly an amazing experience that I will not soon forget.