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The Lockheed L1011 Tristar:
The California Wunderplane

Rendering of an L1011 Tristar flying above London, UK. With engines from Rolls Royce, this aircraft was a trans-Atlantic cooperation venture.

The commercial aircraft manufacturer field today is mostly a duopoly between Boeing and Airbus. In the sixties Airbus did not exist and the marketplace was quite different. In the United States, Boeing was leading the pack with the 707, 747 and 737, also in the running was McDonnell Douglas with the DC-8 and DC-9, Convair’s offering included the 880 and the fast-running derivative, the 990. Lockheed was known in the forties for the legendary Constellation, however its attempt at a turboprop airliner known as the Electra faced numerous issues with several incidents. Lockheed by the mid sixties had no commercial jet offering, though it had experience with jet aircraft from its military projects, most notably the quad-jet C-141 Starlifter which first flew in 1963. The narrowbody quadjet market was dominated by Boeing with the 707 followed by McDonnell Douglas with the DC-8, Convair was offering the 880 as well as the 990 with few takers. There was little room for another entrant in that market. If Lockheed wanted to remain in commercial aviation, it would need a new product that met an unfilled market need.

The need

That market need was something bigger than a 707 but smaller than a 747, with the ability to travel short to medium distances with better than existing economics. That is what Frank Kolk, American Airlines Vice-President for Development Engineering told Boeing, Douglas and Lockheed. Boeing was already busy with several aircraft development projects, Douglas and Lockheed both decided to heed American’s call for a twin engined short to medium haul aircraft.

Lockheed had first planned for a twin-engined widebody aircraft called the CL-1011 (California Lockheed). However, in looking at the potential airline market beyond American Airlines, a need for medium range aircraft with the ability to fly transcontinental and trans-Atlantic from the east coast was identified with other airlines, notably Eastern. At the time, jet engine reliability was lower than it is today, aircraft flying across large bodies of water equipped with only two engines needed to be able to land at a diversion airport within 60 minutes. If an aircraft were to fly across the Atlantic, it would need three or four engines. Jet engines in the sixties also lacked the power to get a heavier aircraft to rotation speed on a runway within the length of most runways at the time. The solution to these issues was to create an aircraft with three engines.

Both McDonnell-Douglas’ and Lockheed’s commercial aviation factories were located in Southern California; Long Beach for McDonnell Douglas and Burbank/Palmdale for Lockheed. Officially Lockheed was known in California as the Lockheed California Company. Though the main players for this market were from Los Angeles County, the battle for the market would take place around the world.

Douglas’ response was the DC-10, an aircraft that relied heavily on the technologies developed for the DC-8 and scaled up. Lockheed, with no existing commercial aircraft to use as a base of design, decided to go with cutting edge technologies and design an aircraft that would be technologically superior not only to the competition, but also to anything flying at the time. Ultimately American Airlines chose the DC-10. Lockheed had significant interest from other airlines that allowed them to launch the L1011 Tristar to compete with the DC-10.

 

Douglas DC-10

Though Lockheed had ample aviation experience, it did not have an existing commercial jetliner to derive technologies from. Lockheed management and engineers saw this more as a blessing allowing them to create a clean sheet design using the latest technologies as well as engineering new ones.

Flight Controls

Some key innovations were found in the flight control systems, also known as Avionic Flight Control system (AFCS). Some key innovations included in the autopilot were speed control, a moving map navigation system, direct lift control system and stability system. One major innovation was the CAT-IIIB autoland system which allowed the plane to automatically land even during zero visibility weather conditions. Other widebody aircraft in similar situations would need to divert to alternate airports.

All the systems were integrated that allowed the aircraft to complete a full flight with minimal input from pilots, something that had not been done at the time.

Engine

One of the biggest innovations of the aircraft would not come directly from Lockheed, but from across the ocean in the United Kingdom. Rolls Royce was working on a new jet engine that promised to deliver more power, for less fuel consumption and noise. Using the first three spool engine design as well as carbon-fiber fan blades, both a first for a commercial jet engine, the RB211 was promised to be a revolution. The Lockheed L1011 with the RB211 could deliver a quieter and more economical aircraft than its direct competitor McDonnell Douglas.

Rolls Royce RB211 Jet Engine

The technology simply was not ready yet. Meeting the promised performance metrics was proving more challenging than originally anticipated, compounded by reliability issues. The carbon-fiber fan blades exploded on impact with a chicken carcass during an ingestion test, leading to the replacement of the carbon fiber blades with more traditional titanium. This led to weight and cost penalties as well as development delays.

With aggressive pricing and schedule to attract Lockheed, Rolls Royce had over-promised what they could deliver and the company  plunged into fiscal turmoil. Rolls Royce went into insolvency in January 1971 and into receivership the next month. If not resolved, the bankruptcy of Rolls Royce could also imperil the Franco-British Concorde powered by Rolls Royce Olympus engines.

Negotiations began between Lockheed and Rolls Royce in New York to see how the RB211 program, and by extension the L1011 program could be saved. Stateside, there was pressure from jet engine manufacturer General Electric to force Lockheed to use an American built engine. Lockheed had even visited California arch-rival McDonnell-Douglas to discuss licensing the nacelle design for the GE CF6 engine used on the DC-10. Ultimately this would not be needed. Lockheed agreed to increase payment for each RB211 engine as well as remove any penalties for late delivery. Lockheed in turn had to renegotiate the purchase price of the L1011 aircraft that was previously agreed to by the launch airlines including Air Canada, Eastern, and TWA.

The UK Government agreed to bailout Rolls Royce by nationalizing it on the condition that the US Government agree to loan guarantees to the banks that were financing the development of the L1011. Lockheed itself was facing issues due to the induced delays of the RB211 which impacted the overall  L1011 development schedule as well as development delays with the military C-5 Galaxy aircraft. Rolls Royce & the UK needed Lockheed to build the L1011 so as to have a plane to sell its engines.

In May 1971, a bill in which the US Government would guarantee loans to the L1011 project was presented to Congress. It was ratified by the Senate in August with only one vote to spare. 

After initial teething problems, the RB211 managed to deliver on many of the promises. The high-bypass fan proved to offer better economics than similar engines and was used to power versions of Boeing’s 757, 767 and 747. Its design largely inspired its successor, the Trent being built for the Airbus A380 and A350. The Trent is equipped with carbon fiber fan blades.

Spare Engine

The L1011 could be sometimes seen with a fourth engine hanging off the starboard wing. It wasn’t used for additional thrust, just for ferrying an engine in case of a breakdown of another L1011 at a remote airport. The 747 also had this capability.

Cabin

The overall cabin design philosophy that Lockheed pursued was that of a large open cabin that maximized passenger comfort and space.

There were several interesting cabin innovations designed to make the L1011 stand out to airlines and passengers alike.  

Commuter Lounge/ Optional Passenger Space

Lockheed offered a space below the main cabin, forward of the galley that could be used for different purposes depending on the airlines’ needs.

A commuter version of the L1011 would contain a self-contained air-stair that would deploy from the lower level, passengers would embark via these airstairs, drop their carry-ons in the provided shelves and then proceed to a lounge area where refreshments would be available and passengers would be free to mingle. A staircase would allow passengers to alight to the cabin above and then reverse flow on arrival. This arrangement would allow the L1011 to serve airports with limited ground infrastructure such as airstairs or jetbridges. Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) would choose this configuration. 

A main deck folding air-stairs system was also studied but never implemented. The stairs would have folded into a cargo hold and allowed passengers to access the main deck directly from the apron.

Other options that were studied for that space were additional seating for extra passengers, sleeping berths and dining room options. None of these options were taken up by airlines.

Galley

The L1011 was unique in that Lockheed moved the galley to the same level as the cargo hold below the passenger cabin. This would allow more space on the main deck for passengers while providing a dedicated space below. Another advantage to the below deck galley was that meals could be loaded/unloaded by ground crew without interfering with passenger enplaning and deplaning in the cabin above, thus potentially shortening turn-around times. The galley was accessed from the main deck by two elevators that would shuttle meal and beverage carts between the galley and the cabin. The elevator was used by some flight attendants to light a cigarette discreetely during breaks.

Restrooms

The restrooms were placed at the front and the rear of the aircraft with none in between. The design made use of the rear of the aircraft that would otherwise be used by the galley or for cabin amenities. By placing five lavatories side by side against the rear pressure bulkhead, space was freed up in the cabin for passenger seating or other amenities.

Coat Racks:

A coat rack located at the entry vestibules allowed flight attendants to collect coats and put them in a storage area that would rise out of reach during flight so as to save space for the cabin below. 

The center rows had an optional dedicated enclosed coat rack in between two sets of seats. Passengers in the seats behind the coat rack could store the coats during the flight while having access to them at anytime without leaving their seats.

Window Shades:

Lockheed had developed a polarized window shade that allowed passengers to dim a window by sliding a window control that would in turn rotate a polarized filter which combined with a stationary polarized filter would darken the window. This was an optional feature that no airline took up. Though different in technology, the Boeing 787 has electronically dimmable windows as standard. The 787 flew for the first time 39 years after the L1011.

Manufacturing

The manufacturing of the L1011 was spread out across Lockheed’s facilities north of Los Angeles. Lockheed’s Headquarters was historically Burbank Airport. With surrounding urban development, it became necessary to build new facilities for the L1011 assembly north in Palmdale.

Lockheed California Company facilities north of Los Angeles

Return of the Twin

Though the original concept of a twin-engined L1011 was put aside in favor of a trijet configuration. Lockheed had studied the possibility of offering a short-haul version of the L1011 using the same fuselage and engines in the mid seventies. This version would ultimately not be developed further but closely resembles the Airbus A300 in layout. The twin-engine configuration would eventually come to dominate the airliner market as engines became more powerful and reliable, allowing regulations to permit long-haul twin-engined flight with far fewer restrictions and increased payloads. 

 

Ultimately the trijet configuration ended up being a transition configuration, as medium and long haul aircraft were able to serve the same functions with two engines instead of three, thereby reducing cost. The market ultimately ended up being too small for both Lockheed and McDonnell-Douglas. After building 250 airframes, Lockheed delivered the last L1011 in March of 1985. The L1011 Tristar was the last passenger commercial aircraft Lockheed built. McDonnell-Douglas built a modernized derivative of the DC-10, the MD-11 which also failed to sell in commercially desirable numbers. McDonnell-Douglas merged with Boeing in 1997

Perhaps in a twist of irony, GE pioneered the use of carbon fiber fan blades on the GE90 engine platform for the twin-engined Boeing 777, offering it reduced weight with superior performance allowing the 777 to dominate the long-haul, high capacity  airliner market since its first flight in 1994.

 

GE90 Engine with Carbon Fiber fan blades

The L1011 had a starring role in Wesley Snipes’ action movie Passenger 57, the movie made full use of the Tristar’s unique galley and elevator configuration. Always bet on black.

The late King Hussein of Jordan used an L1011 as the flagship of the Royal Fleet. He famously flew his aircraft over Jerusalem during the 1994 peace process escorted by two Israeli fighter jets. He flew his last flight home at the helm of his L1011 to a hero’s reception after stopping cancer treatments at the Mayo clinic in 1999.

At the time of writing there is one airworthy L1011 Tristar (potentially a second). A space launch company called Orbital converted an Air Canada Tristar to carry a rocket attached to the underside of the fuselage. Once at launch altitude the rocket would detach and carry the payload into space. The company was purchased by Northrop Grumman and is based at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

Though not in flight worthy condition, an L1011 Tristar is located at Lyon Saint-Exupery Airport in France following an emergency landing due to a hailstorm. The aircraft was open to the public prior to the Covid-19 Pandemic. Attempts to contact the airport authority as to its current status have gone unanswered.

There are numerous articles and videos on the L1011, similar to this article discussing the advanced technology, missteps and ultimately wondering what could have been. The L1011, to many including myself, was an aircraft that should have succeeded. Lockheed took risks to deliver a technologically advanced aircraft, experimented with technologies that were adapted by other manufacturers in the following years on new aircraft designs. The engineering that went into mundane coat racks was emblematic of Lockheed’s approach to engineering: full throttle. This was the company that delivered the U-2 and the SR-71 Blackbird, home of the Skunk Works. Lockheed was living in the future in 1972.

1966

American Airlines issues Request

Frank Kolk, American Airlines Vice President for Engineering and Development issues a request for the development of a twin-engined short-medium range widebody aircraft

1966

McDonnell Douglas & Lockheed Respond

Both Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas respond to the American Airlines request. Both begin development projects on the L1011 and DC-10 respectively

June 23, 1967

Rolls Royce offers the RB 211 to Lockheed

March 29, 1968

Lockheed orders 150 sets of engines

November 16, 1970

First L1011 Flight

January 1971

Rolls Royce enters insolvency

February 4, 1971

Rolls Royce enters receivership

March 1971

Rolls Royce Negotiates with Lockheed to save RB211

May 11, 1971

Bill goes to US Congress for Loan Guarantees to Lockheed

August 2, 1971

US Senate approves Loan Guarantees to Lockheed

Bill passes with one vote to spare

April 14, 1972

L1011 is certified by the FAA

April 26, 1972

First L1011 Delivery to Eastern Airlines

October 16, 1979

First L1011-500 flight

The L1011-500 is a shortened version of the L1011 with increased take-off weight, fuel capacity and uprated engines for intercontinental travel.

March 10, 1985

Last L1011 Delivery to Las Vegas Sands

Jean-Christophe Dick

Jean-Christophe has over 15 years experience as Airport Planner, currently at ESA, and has been on the Board of the Flight Path Museum since 2017. He is currently serving as the Museum Vice-President, Airport Historian and Technology Chair. He is also a pilot and award-winning photographer .
He flew on the L1011 Tristar after a Volcano erupted in the Philippines.