The Rise & Fall Of The Lockheed L-1011 TriStar

Next year will mark half a century since the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar was first introduced. The aircraft was a big name as the jet age entered its next stage of evolution. Here’s a look at the journey of the plane.

Lockheed L-1011 TriStar
Lockheed broke good ground with the jet. Photo: Getty Images

Fulfilling demand

After six years of hard work, Lockheed California Company made the first delivery of the L-1011 TriStar in April 1972. The first operator of the aircraft was Eastern Airlines, who entered the plane into service in the same month it was received. However, it was another United States-based carrier that spurred the project to get underway.

According to AeroTime, American Airlines required a plane that could transfer its passengers from the carrier’s hubs in New York and Dallas to routes across the Atlantic and to South America. So, the operator’s chief engineer, Frank Kolk contacted the three big players in the manufacturing game; Boeing, Douglas, and Lockheed.

Boeing was occupied with the development of the 737 and 747 at the time, and it was something in between these two eventual mainstays that American needed. It wanted to transport more customers than the 737 but something more fuel-efficient than the 747.

Thinking big

Douglas’ solution was the DC-10, which drew significant inspiration from one of its predecessors, the DC-8. Lockheed, however, went all in and sought to create something innovative and fresh. Ultimately, it wanted to make use of the most modern technology of the time and even create new systems if it had to.

McDonnell Douglas DC-10 and Boeing 737
386 commercial DC-10s were sold. Photo: Getty Images

The TriStar’s AFCS (Avionic Flight Control system) included some of the period’s state-of-the-art features. It had speed control, a flight control system, a navigation system, a stability system, a direct lift control system, and autopilot. The aircraft’s CAT-IIIB Autoland system could also help the trijet land, even in severe weather.

The L-1011-1 had a typical capacity of 256 in a mixed-class seating. Meanwhile, its three Rolls-Royce RB211-22 supported it to cruise at 520 kn (963 km/h) and reach a range of up to 2,680 NM (4,963 km).

Plenty to admire

There were also significant cabin innovations. For instance, the passengers on board would notice glare-resistant windows, full-sized hideaway closets for jackets, and a below-deck galley. Food would make its way up to the main cabin with the help of a pair of elevators. Passengers and crew alike enjoyed the advanced features of the aircraft.

“Passengers loved riding in it, thanks to a unique engine configuration that reduced sound in the cabin. Flight crews appreciated its extra-wide aisles and overhead bins. But it was TriStar’s pilots who had access to its most thrilling feature: an advanced fly-by-wire automatic flight control system. Tristar pilots simply had to dial altitude and course changes into the flight control system and monitor their instruments, and the L-1011 would fly and land on its own, descending smoothly onto the runway by locking in to an airport’s radio beacons,” Lockheed Martin shares on its website.

“Thanks to its impressive autopilot feature, the TriStar was given special clearance by the FAA to land during severe weather conditions. Whereas other wide-bodied jets had to be diverted to alternate airports, L-1011 passengers could rest assured that they would touch down precisely where they were scheduled to land.”

These modern features helped some groundbreaking moments to be achieved. For example, on May 25th, 1972, test pilots Anthony LeVier and Charles Hall flew 115 crew members, employees, and reporters on a four hour and 13 minute trip from Palmdale, California, to Washington Dulles with the TriStar’s AFCS feature in place from takeoff to landing. This was the first transcontinental flight without the need for human hands on the controls. This moment helped to create confidence in new forms of flight tech.

Lockheed L-1011 TriStar Mockup Interior
Passengers sitting back in a mockup cabin of a Lockheed L-1011 in Burbank, California in 1967. Photo: Getty Images

Across the skies

There were several fans of the L-1011 during its production run. TWA praised it as one of the safest planes in the world. Meanwhile, Delta Air Lines became the L-1011 TriStar’s biggest customer receiving 70 units. The Atlanta-based carrier would fly five variants of the type; the L-1011-1, -100, -200, -250, and -500.

There were also international fans with the likes of Cathay Pacific taking on several. The Hong Kong-based airline took on 21 units from Eastern in 1989 after the US carrier’s bankruptcy.

Eastern christened the L-1011 for many airlines to enjoy the plane’s abilities. However, just like the airline that launched it, the aircraft’s run would also come to an end in the 1980s.

“Dubbed the Whisperliner by Eastern Airlines due to its quiet takeoffs and a noticeable lack of noise in its passenger cabin, the production of L-1011 continued until 1983. The L-1011 fleet had a remarkable in-service rate that reached 98.1 percent reliability,” Lockheed Martin adds.

“But the financial troubles proved too much to overcome. A total of 250 TriStar jets were produced by Lockheed, and the L-1011 marked the company’s final commercial passenger airliners. But the company exited on a high note, having created, in one pilot’s words, ‘the most intelligent airliner ever to fly.'”

Lockheed L-1011 Tristar taking-off with mountains behind.
Lockheed would eventually pull out of the civil market completely. Photo: Getty Images

Playing catch up

Altogether, the L-1011 was a superb aircraft for its time. However, since it was highly ambitious, it was beaten to the market by a year by a key rival in the form of the DC-10. Therefore, it lost out on crucial revenues from potential sales that went to the McDonnell Douglas aircraft. This factor ended up causing the project huge losses. It sold 250 units, but it would have had to sell 500 if it was to become profitable. Nonetheless, McDonnell Douglas would also soon disappear from the commercial jet race after being snapped up by Boeing in the following decade.

Lockheed L-1011 in a row
There was also a PR disaster when Lockheed bribed figures in the Japanese government to partly pay for All Nippon Airways’ purchase of the L-1011. Photo: Getty Images   

The L-1011 highlighted what could be achieved in the jet industry if the technology was cultivated well. While it may be a thing of the past in the commercial realm, one company still recognizes its technological benefits. In the early 90s, Orbital Sciences Corporation modified a unit to be part of the rocket-launching process. The plane was transformed from an Air Canada passenger model with Air Canada taking part in taking satellites to space. This unit still flies today, keeping the L-1011’s legacy alive.

What are your thoughts about the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar? Did you ever fly on the aircraft over the years? Let us know what you think of the plane in the comment section.