The Lockheed L-1011 Tristar Was an Over-Engineered Masterpiece

Eastern AirlinesAero Icarus from Zürich, Switzerland [CC BY-SA (]

Engine Issues and Late Market Entry Kept the Tristar From Reaching Its Full Commercial Potential

The early 1970s was a magnificent era in aviation. Big was ‘in’ as airplane manufacturers explored a host of new technologies to deliver jet-flight comfort to the masses.

The theory was that a large aircraft could accommodate the expected growth of the industry while providing better comfort and enough range to connect the world. From this era came the mighty Boeing 747, the Douglas DC-10 and the Lockheed L-1011.

Lockheed is enticed by growing commercial market

Back in the late 1960s, American Airlines went to Lockheed and Douglas looking for a widebody airliner smaller than the 747 but larger than the then-common Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8. Douglas offered the DC-10. Seeing the large market potential, Lockheed offered the L-1011.

Lockheed was no stranger to the commercial market. Up until the early 1960s, Lockheed regularly offered commercial aircraft. The Constellation and later the L-188 Electra represented top-tier designs for the era. Lockheed had become more focused on the steady stream of military projects over time. Their C-130, C-141, and C-5 Galaxy offerings provided a seemingly solid source of income. While the C-5 provided a great platform to explore new technologies (like high-bypass engines, kneeling gear, and advanced cockpit design), it was fraught with issues and cost overruns. Lockheed returned to the commercial market with a goal to build the best medium sized-wide body on the market.

The Eastern Airlines promotional film from the early 1970s shows the enthusiasm behind Lockheed’s entrant into the widebody market (posted on Youtube by Periscope Films).

Advanced features at every turn

Lockheed’s entrant into the wide-body market was meant to make a splash. The jet included three engines meant to provide better economics than the more-common four engined aircraft of the day. The L-1011 offered cabin comforts of the larger 747 (wide seats, large open cabin) along with new amenities like potable water system, optional downstairs lounge, entertainment system and crew elevator to keep most of the galleys out of sight of the passengers.

The aircraft itself offered advanced technology like Cat IIIc autoland meaning that the jet could land at approved fields in zero visibility conditions on autopilot. The jet also featured DLC (a more advanced version was also featured on the C-17) enabling more stable approaches using variable spoilers to dissipate lift in approach conditions.

Successful first flight, then engine manufacturer challenges emerge

Lockheed chose the Rolls Royce RB-211 to power their new jet. The engine offered a seemingly more advanced design with higher thrust than the simpler and more common two-spool configuration of the day. It was seen as a differential over the Douglas design that was to feature the General Electric CF-6. The L-1011 first flew on November 16, 1970.

Shortly after, Rolls Royce encountered financial difficulties. The cost of the new engine bankrupted the famed engine manufacturer. It was only through US government guarantees secured by Lockheed that production would resume. Due to this delay, Lockheed’s new widebody wasn’t certified until almost 18 months later. By this time, Douglas’ DC-10 had already commenced service.

The L-1011 finally entered commercial service in 1972 with Eastern Airlines. TWA, Delta, British Airways (originally Court), Cathay Pacific, and Pacific Southwest Airlines all placed early orders for the jet. Airlines like TWA even produced ad campaigns around the jet as seen in this commercial posted on YouTube by 4engines4fun.

Lockheed later offered optimized versions of the jet providing improvements in range and performance. They also offered a shortened L-1011-500 version that gave the jet long enough legs to comfortably offer transatlantic service from any east coast airports to locations deep within the heart of Europe.

Later operators included American Trans Air (ATA), Air Canada, Pan Am, United, and Saudia.

The L-1011 ended Lockheed’s love affair with commercial offerings

The L-1011 was a mix of advanced design and disappointing initial performance. Lockheed couldn’t overcome their delayed entry to market, combined with weak performance from the first versions of the aircraft. The jet sold a total of 249 aircraft to commercial and military customers. But the relatively paltry sales led to Lockheed determine that focusing on military aircraft represented its best path forward as a company.

Editors note: The original version of the story incorrectly cited that the RB-211 engine had a two spool configuration. We corrected the story to accurately reflect that the design was actually a three spool engine.