Jul 092007

Early this morning, Australian Eastern Standard Time, American aircraft manufacturer, Boeing, officially launched it’s long-awaited new generation commercial aircraft, the Boeing 787 series Dreamliner.

The Dreamliner – the name alone somewhat of a departure from previous Boeing offerings which relied solely on their manufacture-appointed digital classification for marketing – represents a radical departure from current commercial aircraft manufacturing methods. According to the Boeing blurb, “as much as 50 percent of the primary structure — including the fuselage and wing — on the 787 will be made of composite materials.”
What are composite materials? Essentially, non-metallic elements. Plastics, polymers, reinforced carbon fibre and ceramics. The use of composite materials isn’t anything new to aerodynamic science, being pioneered by Burt Rutan’s company, Scaled Composites. Scaled Composites, as some may recall, leads the way in commercially oriented spaceflight with its Spaceship One and soon to be launched Spaceship Two, a pie in which Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin conglomerate has several fingers.
But composite construction has been used in commercially available aircraft long before the Boeing 787, and even earlier than the Spaceship One / White Knight pairing pushed sub-orbital flight into the realms of the privateer. Rutan’s imaginative aircraft stable began thirty-five years ago with the flight of a prototype kit plane for the American hobbyist market, named VariViggen. Rutan’s primary interest was in aerodynamic stability, particularly the aerodynamics of canard and forward-swept wing-equipped airframes. Following on from the VariViggen came the VariEze, Long-EZ, and eventually resulting in what has to be the single most advanced commercially available passenger aircraft produced since the Wright Brothers excited Kittyhawk.
The aptly named Starship 2000, conceived of a Rutan design and constructed by Beech Aircraft, first took to the air in 1986. It’s design was revolutionary at the time, and if you ever have the chance to see one in the flesh, so to speak, you’ll agree with me that it remains revolutionary today. The construction of the Beechcraft Starship 2000 was almost entirely of composite materials, resulting in an extremely light aircraft, but one which was also exceptionally strong yet flexible.
The history of the Starship reads like a corporate battle with government bureaucracy which could only ever end in tears, and so it was. Advanced sales of this fantastic aircraft were good, but FAA delays for all manner of air safety certifications put back the final flight certification so badly that potential buyers eventually looked elsewhere, leaving Raytheon, ultimately the major shareholder and owner of Beech Aircraft, with little choice but to abandon future construction after 53 aircraft were built and only a small handful actually sold.
Currently only 4 Starships are still flying. One is owned by Scaled Composites, being used as an executive transport and chase plane for the Spaceship One/Tier One development program. Others were bought from owners willing to sell them back to Raytheon, which had advised that it’s support programs were to end in 2003. This despite the fact that the Starship’s airframe literally has no decommissioning date because of it’s advanced composite hull technology. In the end, it’s all down to money, with Raytheon deciding that the costs of providing material support for a production line of less than 50 aircraft just wasn’t viable.
Many of the aircraft are now stored at the Pinal Air Park, near Tuscon. Slip into GoogleEarth and search on ‘Pinal Air Park’ and you’ll see the rows of Starships all lined up, awaiting destruction. For an aircraft enthusiast like myself, it’s enough to bring tears to the eyes. If, like I was, you’d be stunned to learn that there is one Starship in Australia, and you’re a Brisbane-ite you’ll be thrilled to little bits to know that it sits outside the workshops of the Queensland Institute for Aviation Engineering at Caloundra airport. Just down the road from the Queensland Air Museum. If you ask nicely, they’ll probably let you take a gander inside too. When I saw her about a year ago, she was still pristine, sans engines, of course.

donated by Colin Pay in 2006

While Boeing’s dramatic announcement over the weekend might spell a new lease of life for air travel in this age of global warming, higher fuel prices and even higher costs of traveling by air, the so-called new technology owes much to the Beechcraft Starship 2000 and Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites.