Lockheed Had Intended To Challenge The Boeing 747 And Airbus A380

Back in the mid-1990s, a short paper was produced by Lockheed Martin titled “The future of very large subsonic transports.” This 30-page presentation looked at the state of “very large subsonic transports” or VLSTs and how Lockheed Martin could build one of its own. The company’s offering would be an aircraft with enough capacity to accommodate up to 950 passengers! Let’s take a look at this forgotten slice of history.

A sketch of Lockheed Martin’s VLST concept. Photo: Lockheed Martin/NASA

With relatively limited success for its L-1011 Tristar, Lockheed Martin hasn’t been in the commercial airliner game for decades. Instead, the company has focused its efforts on military aircraft. Even with Tristar production ending in 1983, the American aerospace firm had been out of the commercial aircraft sector for over a decade with the release of its 1996 paper.

However, the paper’s authors wanted to entertain the thought of building an aircraft that could outperform even the mighty Boeing 747 as a multi-use transporter. Enter its candidate for the next VLST. With the Airbus A380 launched in 2005, this behemoth would have likely beat Airbus to market in producing a 747 rival.

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A multi-purpose plane

According to the Lockheed Martin document (now in the custody of NASA), LMAS, or Lockheed Martin Aeronautical Systems, was examining the possibility of producing a “multi-use commercial passenger, commercial cargo, and military airlifter roughly 50% larger than the current Lockheed C-5 and Boeing 747.”

Although Lockheed Martin had already moved its focus towards military aircraft by then, the authors of the paper note that the hefty size and cost of the VLST would not allow it to be a solely military endeavor, citing “declining defense budgets.” The report thus states that its development needed to appeal to several types of customers.

Multiple design options were drafted. Photo: Lockheed Martin/NASA

“A successful VLST must therefore meet airline requirements for more passenger and cargo capacity on congested routes into slot-limited airports and also provide a cost effective heavy airlift capacity to support the overseas deployment of US military forces.”

The paper adds that a successful VLST must satisfy three key missions:

  • Commercial passenger service with nominal seating capacity at a minimum of 650 passengers with a range capability of 7,000 to 10,000 miles;
  • Commercial air cargo service for containerized cargo to support global manufacturing of high value-added products.
  • And military airlift with adequate capacity to load current weapon systems, with minimal break-down, over global ranges (7,000 to 10,000 miles) required to reach the operational theater without the need of overseas bases and mid-air refueling.
The company had evaluated the competition and what other companies might offer in the same category. Photo: Lockheed Martin/NASA

Theoretical specifications

The VLST that would have been produced by LMAS was to have the following specifications:

  • 1.4 million lbs of MTOW
  • Folding wings with a 282-foot wingspan (211 feet when folded)
  • 262 feet in length
  • 3200 nautical miles of range carrying more than 400,000 lbs of payload
  • A cargo variant would have accommodated 16 40-foot containers

The massive aircraft would have been powered by four engines, with the study’s authors suggesting three options: The GE90, Rolls-Royce Trent, or PW4000.

Cargolux 747-400
Lockheed Martin’s VLST would have been much bigger than the Boeing 747. Photo: Getty Images

Deemed possible, but expensive

The paper notes that the cost to develop such an aircraft would have been $8-15 billion. In 2021 values, this would be closer to $14-27 billion. The per-unit cost was estimated to be somewhere between $200 million and $300 million- or $364-550 million today. This, the paper admits, would have been larger than annual profits for many airlines and was unlikely to be internally financed by airline and leasing companies.

In the end, Lockheed Martin noted that its VLST was “technically possible now,” but that airline interest had decreased in recent times due to financial difficulties. In analyzing the challenges of building and operating a VLST, hindsight would indicate that Lockheed Martin made the right call not moving forward with such a project.

But what do you think? Is there any possible way this beast of an aircraft would have been successful? Let us know by leaving a comment.