Earlier, we hinted at an exception to our theme that this year's NBAA extravaganza was an evolutionary one. Enter long-time industry veteran Linden Blue. Blue, you may know, was in Beechcraft's left seat in 1983 when the aforementioned Starship was born. He also served as general manager at Learjet and was CEO of Learfan. While much has changed among the three Starship players -- Rutan now is very focused on space while Beech is now deeply immersed in the Raytheon empire and all but a handful of the 53 Starships ever made have been grounded -- Blue's heart clearly is still in business aviation. This year, he and his son Austin brought to Orlando news of their latest innovation: a soon-to-be-flying full-scale prototype of an extremely lightweight, all-composite Williams FJ33-powered jet called the Spectrum 33. Like the Starship, Blue and his team at Spectrum Aeronautical developed their jet completely under the radar, this time at a facility in the Utah desert. Seemingly well-financed and obviously determined to bring their project to certification, they have built production tooling and used it to assemble the first example of the '33. What's more, they strongly believe they have solved the bugaboo of just about every all-composite airplane since (and including) the Starship: weight. At NBAA, AVweb sat down with Linden and Austin for an exclusive interview.
According to Blue (and a lot of others), the reason most production all-composite aircraft failed to realize their twin promise of strength and light weight is that manufacturers tried to assemble the advanced materials using methods dating from the Great Depression. "Composites can be seductive," Blue told us. "The devil is in the details; putting them together is the problem." He calls this the "black aluminum" approach: trying to assemble carbon-fiber composites, for example, using methods designed for the too-familiar metal. In fact, the Starship program failed when it was transferred from Rutan's hands to Beech's Wichita facility. Beech "lost control of costs and weight," according to Blue, dooming the Starship to its eventual fate. Instead, Blue says he has spent the last 20 years working on what he calls the "technology of manufacturing" all-composite aircraft to overcome these "traditional assembly" methods. Proof of their theories, Blue and his team maintain, can be found in the Spectrum 33's numbers: Their empty airplane weighs roughly half the empty weight of a Cessna Citation CJ2. One of the keys is the composite material itself, which is dubbed "FibeX." The other key is something called "grid stiffening," which the company says "describes a structural configuration that employs stiffeners or ribs in a pattern which distributes loads widely throughout a given structure." Spectrum says this type of manufacturing is the main difference between its method and the honeycomb core stiffening common in almost all other aircraft composite construction.