Design – or at least the business of externalising and explaining it – works by analogy, and just as they say the brain has only so much room for memories, so it only has so much capacity for innovation.  Perhaps that’s why the Beech Starship, an aircraft from the future, was forgotten over a decade ago.

In fact, from the perspective of the handful of hours I’ve flown in a flying school Cessna, the Starship comes from the far distant future.  The Cessna 152, its door pull a length of string, its R/T jacks crackling, its pitot head bent out of shape, is a product of 1940’s technology.  When the Beechcraft company became a Starship builder, it took a decade leap in design, materials and manufacturing from the late 1970’s straight into the 1990’s.

Aircraft design has gone through several revolutions, and each was driven by materials science.  From the timber frames clad in doped fabric of early biplanes, through the development of plywood to build the de Havilland Mosquito, we reached stressed-skin aluminium less than forty years after the Wright brothers first took off.  The Mosquito was one of the least resource-hungry aircraft to build, as it pioneered the use of composite construction, with plywood used in preference to carbonfibre, of course, since the latter hadn’t been invented at that time.

If you think the two are worlds apart from each other, consider that a matrix of wood cellulose fibres laid up in resorcinol resin isn't too far removed from a matrix of carbon fibres laid up in epoxy resin.  In both cases, the composite is tailored, since the fibres can be orientated to best resist the forces which an aircraft encounters: both static and dynamic.  In between the Mosquito and the Starship came the laid glassfibre construction of sailplanes, but the Starship went one step further than GRP, proposing filament-wound carbon composites as a construction process for aircraft fuselages.  The choice of such a futuristic material was a philosophical as much as a commercial one.

Many architects don’t have a deep philosophy – what they do is instinctive, and the thread of continuity running through their work is often a stylistic tic rather than a line of intellectual inquiry.  Think about sliding glazed screens, “structural tree” columns, randomised chequerboards of coloured cladding.  Burt Rutan, who designed and helped to develop the Starship, first came to notice with his dragonfly-proportioned sailplanes: the projects which followed made it abundantly clear that he was following his own path.  His philosophy was to attempt the impossible… and with the Starship, Rutan tackled three things simultaneously: How it flies, how you control it, and how it’s made.  With those three came a fourth: how to measure your expectation of what an aircraft looks like. 

The connection between Beechcraft and Rutan is at least as important as the connections which both made with the outside world.  Since 1950, Beech had been run by its founder Walter Beech’s much younger widow, Olive Ann.  Through the post-war decades, it sounds like an enlightened, almost matriarchal company: a 1980's magazine article noted that Mrs. Beech would put yellow “happy face” stickers on the office doors of executives, and she organised company picnics for the workers.  However, a few years before, Olive Beech and her husband did business with Buckminster Fuller – in 1946, Beech planned to use their wartime production lines to make Dymaxion houses.  They projected quarter of a million rolling out of the Beechcraft factory in Wichita each year … reputedly, in the end, only two were built.  Fuller’s zeal was undiminished, but Beech’s approach for the next thirty years was more conservative – until Burt Rutan appeared.

If Martin Pawley believed that Fuller was a “Twenty-first century man”, Rutan perhaps comes from the 25th, like Buck Rogers.  Early in his career, Rutan developed a microlight for Colin Chapman, the man behind Lotus Cars.  That was the first indication that Rutan’s philosophy was worth something beyond the closeted world of aircraft design.  Chapman, after all, specialised in building sports cars using glassfibre composites for light weight and rigidity, in pursuit of excellent handling.  Rutan was just as uncompromising as Chapman, and his guiding philosophy was – if half the people at his firm, Scaled Composites, don’t believe a project is impossible, we don’t take it on.  Rutan came to specialise in lightweight composite aircraft with canard foreplanes and pusher propellors.

Starship development began in 1979, continued with a brief break when Raytheon bought Beechcraft in 1982.  A year later, Rutan produced a proof-of-concept aircraft which looked like a prototype, and convinced observers that production was close.  However, as Max Bleck, the former President of Beechcraft later recounted – “Not only was the development not very far along, but Beech Aircraft had virtually no experience with the materials or the manufacturing techniques required to build it. We had never built anything out of composites, and we did not have any data on the properties of resins, fibers, adhesives, composite honeycombs or sealants necessary to design it.”  Five years’ further work was needed before the aircraft was ready for manufacture, and that included building one of the world’s largest autoclaves (pictured above) to cure the composite fuselage within.

What was the point of developing the Starship?  On the simplest level, Beechcraft's product line was ageing, and in order to compete it needed to develop a new aircraft which would see the company into the 21st century, replacing the Queen Air and King Air turboprops.  Modern engines, better aerodynamics and a lighter, composite structure meant that the aircraft would cruise faster and be more fuel efficient – which works on an economic as well as a sustainability level.  Starship also converted Beech to computer-aided design, and a major portion of the work was done on a system called “CATIA”, which provides a three-dimensional design environment and interfaces with tooling.  CATIA – before it was co-opted by Frank Gehry for his baroque ornaments – was developed by Dassualt of France to design aircraft with.

Both in economy of materials, and efficiency of design, the new aircraft was designed to be more sustainable than its predecessor, the King Air.  Even in the 1970's, sustainability was an issue.  As happens when there's a surfeit of lions on African savannah, we're consuming more than is sustainable.  Unlike the lions, we don't suffer from a population crash when we've eaten all the gazelles, although raw material prices may increase to the point where they're uneconomic.  Some advocate stopping human progress in its tracks, but a better solution is to look for alternative ways of doing things.  After all, we were a drain on the environment even when we were hunter-gatherers, and barring some terrible Malthusian event, humans will continue to sit at the top of their food chain whilst they invent more efficient ways of travelling around.

Like Fuller’s Dymaxion House, and despite its revolutionary character, the Starship wasn’t a commercial success.  Perhaps it was ahead of its time, the usual apologetic qualification given to futuristic machines which don’t catch on.  Yet aside from glib lessons about the dangers of being the first company to harness a new technology, or using military spending to lower the barriers to entry (several other aerospace firms benefitted from stealth aircraft contracts, subsidising the development of carbon composites), the Starship is regarded as a historical curiosity.  It’s stuck in that fascinating dead end called “the past’s view of the future” and occupies a similar position to 1950’s science fiction about space travel, or 1980’s cyberpunk fiction about the internet.  Nothing ages as rapidly as predictions about the cutting edge of technology.

Perhaps there’s an application for Beechcraft's principles in 2011, though.  Olive Beech had the vision to work with Buckminster Fuller in an early example of “technology transfer”.  In Britain, the Vickers company had a similar relationship with Barnes Wallis (the father of the bouncing bomb, Wallis also pioneered geodesic construction and is one of the godfathers of the space frame).  Even though there is no direct connection between them, it’s worth noting that Barnes Wallis developed the geodesic construction which Fuller later put to use, and he also pioneered asymmetrical aircraft, which Rutan later tried his hand in designing.  All three went in search of the elusive "economy of means", using modern materials in new forms.

Fuller’s Dymaxion insight was that light weight may not be a huge advantage during the erection of buildings, but it makes a huge difference in raw material costs, and in getting the house to site.  Similarly each extra kilo which an aircraft hauls into the air decreases its range, and increases its running costs.  In an era when we are finally creeping towards systemised prefabrication – prefab toilet pods are well understood; piped and wired services are pre-hung on five metre boards, pre-connected and tested before arriving on site; and curtain walling on larger projects is unitised rather than being “stick built” – prefabricated assemblies travel from all over Europe to reach our building sites.  The time, cost and fuel consumption entailed in getting them to site are a growing issue.  As a result, it’s only a matter of time until carbon composites are incorporated into buildings – a larger gain might be realised by minimising weight.

So we might yet create a “low carbon economy”… by using carbon construction… oh the irony.

Photos copyright Beech Aircraft (Raytheon Corporation)

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