Friday, March 28, 2008

Starship Trooper: Jerry Harkin, Universal Avionics

When Jerry Harkin found out in 2003 that Evergreen Air Centre in Marana, Arizona would become the final resting place for most of the fifty-some Beechcraft Starships ever built, he decided to obtain some small piece of the legacy he helped to create.

Harkin spent 800h behind the control wheel of the Rutan-designed twin-engine turboprop pusher, an aircraft originally offered as an evolution of the Beechcraft King Air 200.

Years after Starship sales fizzled and the line was shuttered, then-owner Raytheon decided to collect as many of the 53 flyable aircraft as possible, remove the engines, landing gear and other parts, and destroy the carbon-fibre structures in incinerators at Evergreen.

The reason? Too high a price to produce spare parts. A few models survived the purge though, and enthusiasts say five aircraft are still flying today.

To his surprise, officials at Evergreen offered an invite to visit the Starships awaiting oblivion at the Pinal Air Park, an airliner storage facility and boneyard conveniently located in the extremely dry desert just north of Tucson, close to Harkin's home and work.

Even better, Harkin found his airplane – Serial #4, whose seat and yoke he came to know quite intimately as a Starship demo pilot for Beech in the late 1980s.

Harkin went to work there in 1988 after retiring from the US Army, where he first became a mechanic in 1965, then learned to fly helicopters in 1968 and aircraft in 1979, including the C-12 (King Air). In between, he did stints in Vietnam and Korea, even trained Iranian pilots to fly helicopters for a period.

His love of flying started in Topeka, Kansas, where he grew up under the arrival and departure corridors for Forbes Air Force Base.

Aircraft that particularly caught his attention were the B-36 and B-47 bombers, mostly the -36s. “I’d be out in the back yard looking up. The sound of a B36 is very unique,” he says. “That piqued my interest in aviation.” That’s not to take away from the -47’s music however.

Evergreen made Harkin a very happy man that day in 2003....

He went home with the pilot’s seat and control yoke from Serial #4, well not home, exactly, but to his office at Universal Avionics, where he goes to work everyday testing advanced flight management systems, electronic flight bags and synthetic vision systems in King Air 350 N10UA. Harkin runs Universal's flight department.

At his latest count, Harkin now has 14,000hr in King Airs, seven type ratings and 21,000h in total.

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