Review: Lockheed L-1011 Tristar

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Built during the era when the aviation industry was starting to be brought to the masses, the Lockheed L-1011 Tristar was born to compete with the Boeing 747 and the Douglas DC-10. Though highly reliable and arguably the best of the bunch, fate sadly conspired against it, with its engine manufacturer going bankrupt before production even began, it being undercut by the competition and being embroiled in a scandal that nearly tore the Lockheed company apart. However, the Tristar is indeed a personal favourite of mine, and one of the best choices for my airline fleet if I happened to be operating an airline in the early 1970’s!

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Much of the technology behind the wide-body L-1011 was derived from their work on the C-5 Galaxy transport aircraft.

The Tristar’s origins extend back to the mid-1960’s, when Boeing unveiled plans for the Boeing 747, what would become the largest commercial airliner at the time. The 747 planned to scoop up a lucrative market for wide-body aircraft, capable of carrying more passengers per flight as opposed to the conventional narrow-body contemporaries such as the DC-8 and the 707. In response, Lockheed and Douglas were both eager to take a slice of Boeing’s pie, and thus went off to create their own wide-bodies.

Similarly to Douglas, Lockheed at first considered a four-engined double-deck aircraft, but would eventually settle on a long-range, high-capacity jet airliner with trijet engine configuration that was smaller than the 747 to make it more flexible and reach a wider range of destinations while able to carry a competitive number of passengers or load of cargo. Between the two, Douglas had the advantage as Lockheed hadn’t built a commercial airliner since the end of the L-188 Electra’s production in 1961, the Tristar being their first commercial jetliner. However, Lockheed had since been contracted to create a variety of large military aircraft, primarily wide-body transports such as the C-130 Hercules, the C-141 Starlifter and the later C-5 Galaxy. As such, Lockheed were able to translate this knowledge into their upcoming L-1011 project.

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A striking image of the Lockheed L-1011 Tristar prototype on the go during early testing.

The overall design was a twin-aisle interior with a maximum of 400 passengers, a three-engine layout, low noise emissions, improved reliability, and efficient operation. The main visible difference between the TriStar and its similar trijet competitor, the DC-10, is the middle/tail engine: the DC-10’s engine is mounted above the fuselage for simplicity of design and more economical construction, while the TriStar’s engine is mounted to the rear fuselage and fed through an S-duct (similar to the Boeing 727) for reduced drag, improved stability, and easier replacement. For power, Lockheed turned to Rolls-Royce in the UK, who answered the company’s call with the RB211, a highly advanced three-spool design with a carbon fibre fan, increasing efficiency and power-to-weight ratio than any competing design. The RB211’s high efficiency would help to make the Tristar competitive with the comparatively inefficient DC-10 and 747, though development and construction of the RB211 bankrupted Rolls-Royce in 1971. This bankruptcy would delay the production of L-1011 engines for several months until the company eventually recovered after being nationalised by the UK government and split from the luxury car division.

Nevertheless, the RB211 gave the Tristar between 42,000 and 50,000lbf (depending on variant), a Cruising Speed of 600mph and a maximum ceiling of 42,000ft. The range of the L-1011 was initially 4,200 miles, but on later models was extended to 6,000 miles, easily putting it in the same competitive streak as the DC-10 and the 747.

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Trans World Airlines were the launch customer of the L-1011.

American Airlines initially showed great interest in the L-1011, but chose instead the DC-10 to be their primary wide-body airliner (though they also sampled 747’s for a time). The launch operator for the L-1011 would instead be Trans World Airlines and Eastern Air Lines, both of which had been users of previous Lockheed products such as the Electra and the legendary Constellation. The prototype Tristar, L-093, first flew on November 17th, 1970, with the production L-1011 being certified by the FAA on April 14th, 1972, the first delivery to Eastern Air Lines taking place 12 days later. To further publicise the new aircraft, an L-1011 was taken on a world tour during 1972 by famed Lockheed test pilot Tony LeVier. The aircraft were manufactured at Lockheed’s factory in Palmdale, California, and immediately went toe-to-toe with the DC-10, which had been somewhat rushed into service a year earlier in 1971.

Though the L-1011 boasted higher efficiency and less noise, Eastern Air Lines going so far as to dub their Tristars the ‘Whisperliners’, the DC-10 was by comparison cheaper and easier to build, thus making it far more popular. As such, Lockheed turned to some unconventional (*cough* highly illegal *cough*) means to get their aircraft into the fleets of airlines.

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In order to get the Tristar into the fleet of All Nippon Airways, Lockheed turned to some underhanded methods.

In an attempt to sell the aircraft in Japan, Lockheed secretly bribed members of the Japanese government to help pay for All Nippon Airways’ purchase of L-1011’s. This scandal was uncovered in 1976, leading to to the arrest of Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, as well as several other officials. Within Lockheed, board chairman Daniel Haughton and vice chairman and president Carl Kotchian resigned their posts on February 13th of the same year. Tanaka was arrested on July 27th, 1976, and was released in August on a ¥200 million ($690,000) bond. He was found guilty by a Tokyo court on October 12th, 1983, for violations of foreign exchange control laws but not on bribery. He was sentenced to four years in prison, but remained free on appeal until his death in 1993. Crucially for Lockheed, the fallout from the scandal included the loss of a contract worth in excess of $1 billion.

Bribery was not an alien concept to Lockeed as their trail of dodgy deals stretched back almost as long as their company history. Between the late 1950’s and early 60’s the company bribed the West German and Japanese governments to buy a contingent of Lockheed F-104 Starfighters while also bribing the Italian government to buy C-130 Hercules transport aircraft; resulting in a scandal that saw the then-president of Italy resign from office.

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The Tristar became synonymous with Delta Air Lines, the company having 47 on its books by the time the type was retired in 2001.

Unusually, major interest came from the Soviet Union, with the development of their own Ilyushin Il-86 incurring delays. As such, the Soviet government proposed the purchase of 30 Tristars followed by a licence-built production run of up to 100 aircraft per annum. This promising deal however was cut abruptly short by the Carter Administration no-less, as his new policy on Human Rights meant that Lockheed was banned from selling advanced technology to potential enemies by the Coordinating Committee.

The odds truly were stacked against the L-1011, and even though their rival DC-10 was suffering horrific accident after horrific accident, it did very little to damage its sales. Eventually, production of the L-1011 came to a close in 1984, with 250 examples built. Primarily, the aircraft was operated by Delta Air Lines, which continued to use the L-1011 as one of its flagship aircraft until 2001 when it was replaced by the Boeing 767-400. Other major operators included several carriers based in South East Asia, with Cathay Pacific and Dragonair owning a sizeable fleet. It was also popular here in Europe, at first with larger airlines such as British Airways and Air Portugal, but later was the mainstay of many charter carriers such as British Airtours (later Caledonian), LTU and Court Line (known for their Angel Delight pink and Lemon Lollipop yellow aircraft! As a kid I always wanted to eat their planes! Mmm, yum!)

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An L-1011 in the delightfully sunny colours of UK Charter airline Court Line.

However, in spite of being not as popular as the DC-10, in terms of safety the L-1011 was among the safest aircraft ever to hit the skies, with only five fatal accidents during its time in commercial aviation, only one of which was a fault with the aircraft itself.

The first major incident was on December 29th, 1972, when Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 crashed into the Florida Everglades whiles attempting to land at Miami due to the flight crew being distracted by a faulty landing gear display, resulting in the deaths of 101 people.

The next major incident was Saudia Flight 163 on the 19th August, 1980, which, after a successful emergency landing due to an in-flight fire, took so long to start evacuating passengers that everyone on board died due to smoke inhalation and other effects of the blaze, resulting in 301 deaths.

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The charred remains of Delta Airlines Flight 191 are seen at Dallas while another Delta Tristar lands in the distance.

Perhaps the most notable incident was Delta Air Lines Flight 191 on August 2nd, 1985. During its approach to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, the aircraft was hit by a Microburst, which is similar to a Tornado only in reverse, air being sucked down towards the ground from the higher atmosphere rather than air being sucked up from the ground. Flight 191 was struck by this and literally forced into the ground, crashing onto Highway 114 before disintegrating on airport land just within the perimeter fence. The crash resulted in 137 deaths, including 1 car driver on Highway 114 whose vehicle was struck by the aircraft’s engine. The crash did however illustrate the danger of Microbursts on aviation, these previously believed to be an abstract myth.

Among the last operators of the L-1011 was American Trans Air, a low-cost carrier that continued to use 3 Tristars when the airline went bankrupt in 2008 during the recession. Most major carriers retired the L-1011 during the 1990’s, with these aircraft becoming the most common feature of many aircraft graveyards in the deserts of the American west.

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The RAF were quick to repurpose redundant L-1011’s for VIP transport and air-to-air refuelling, prior to their retirement in 2014.

Between 1984 and 2014, the Royal Air Force (RAF) used 9 converted aircraft as transport aircraft and tankers, these aircraft seeing action in both Gulf Wars, the Afghanistan War, the Arab Spring of 2011 and the Kosovo conflict. Although options were made for further conversions to other armed forces, only the RAF took up the offer, the last of these aircraft being retired from military use on the 24th March, 2014, being replaced by the Airbus A330 MRTT Voyager.

Though the better aircraft, fate was sadly not kind to the L-1011, especially when compared to the unreliable and dangerous DC-10. As mentioned, the Tristar is a personal favourite of mine, a beautiful and crisp design with reliability and performance to back it up. The L-1011 may have disappeared from mainline commercial aviation, but it still remains in the hearts of many aviation enthusiasts as a plucky, if unlucky, airborne beaut!


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