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Lockheed L-1011

By Patrick Mondout

By the early 1960s, the world's airports were being overrun (sometimes literally) by the first generation of jets. Noticeably absent from the jet race was Lockheed. While Boeing, Douglas and virtually all other aircraft makers were busy making jets, Lockheed had bet on a turboprop - the first such aircraft built in the U.S. But the L188 Electra had deadly design flaws and cancelled orders led to its demise in 1961.

By the mid-60s, the aircraft business was booming and the airlines came calling for a wide-body jet that could carry far more than the 100-150 that the current crop of jets could, Lockheed responded with the L-1011 TriStar. As with the Lockheed Constellation a generation before, it was loved by pilots and featured many technical innovations. Unfortunately, circumstances beyond Lockheed's control would doom the excellent aircraft.

Tri-Star v. DC-10

Lockheed was not the only one to build a widebody. In fact, Boeing made the biggest one of all in the 747, though it was so big that it was really in a different class. Douglas - which had reluctantly merged with McDonnell Aircraft in 1967 after the former had faced financial difficulties - designed the DC-10 to meet the airliner's range and load goals. Likewise, the newly formed Airbus was hard at work on its first aircraft, the widebody A300.

One of the most important decisions an aircraft maker must make is who will provide the engines? Unfortunately, Lockheed chose an unproven design from cash-strapped Rolls Royce. As the years went by, it became clear Rolls Royce would be declared insolvent before it would get the troublesome engine finished.

TWA L-1011

N11006 about to make the last revenue flight for a TWA TriStar on September 3, 1997 in Los Angeles.

Image courtesy of AirNikon. Find more of his photos at

Rolls Royce filed for bankruptcy shortly before the planned introduction leaving Lockheed without an engine for its shiny new technical marvel. Rolls Royce was bailed out by the British government only after the U.S. government guaranteed loans for Lockheed.

The first test flight of the Lockheed L-1011 Tri-Star took place in Palmdale, California on November 16, 1970.

The first L-1011 was delivered a year later than the DC-10 (and two years later than the 747); Eastern Airlines put the aircraft into service on April 26, 1972.

When the Douglas and Lockheed widebody projects were started in the mid-sixties, the aircraft business was booming and there seemed to be no upper limit to how many big aircraft the Big Four (TWA, Pan Am, American, and United) would buy from the Big Three (which included Boeing). But by the early Super70s, the climate had changed dramatically. The economy was declining, gas prices were sky high, and orders were cancelled - especially for the fuel-thirsty L-1011.

The L-1011 and DC-10, in contrast to the 747, were very similar in every respect. They both had an engine under each wing and a third on the tail. The market did not need both planes and both companies would have been better off if one of them had abandoned their plans early on (the airliners, by contrast, loved it as they were able to play the manufacturers off each other and drive prices down). Even if the L-1011 was "technically superior" to the DC-10, it cost more to purchase and more per passenger mile than its competitors.

Some TriStar diehards claim its demise was poor marketing on the part of Lockheed, but the same airlines that had made 11.7 percent profits in 1967 (12% was the maximum allowed by the CAB before deregulation) now had to work hard to squeeze profits out of their aircraft and the otherwise wonderful TriStar made that task difficult.


This TriStar, seen here June 1995, was the subject of a new flight research experiment developed by NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center to improve the efficiency of large transport aircraft. Shown with a NASA F-18 chase plane over California's Sierra Nevada mountains.


NASA photo


Over 190 TriStar's were produced from 1972 until 1984 for customers who included: Air Canada, ANA, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Court Line, Delta (70 different TriStars flew for Delta over the years), Eastern Airlines, Gulf Air, LTU, PSA, TWA, and Saudia.

Unfortunately for Lockheed, their initial estimates of 300 aircraft to break even proved optimistic. In reality, they needed to produced about 500 to break even. Lockheed lost $2.5 billion on the TriStar project and the experience buried them in commercial aerospace. In December 1981, Lockheed announced they were stopping production and taking a final $400 million write off to cover the costs. They never made another major airliner.

The DC-10 never broke even either, owing to competition with the TriStars and a troublesome safety record. It was cancelled in 1988, though the MD-11 derivative survived until the Boeing/Douglas "merger" in the late 90s. In stark contrast, Boeing broke even on its mammoth 747 by 1978 and has enjoyed profits on the double-decker for going on 25 years as of this writing.

Safety First

While DC-10s were falling out of the sky for a variety of reasons, the L-1011 proved to be a very safe plane to fly. Of the 190 produced, only five were involved in fatal crashes. Of those five only one one (see below) can be said to have been a problem with the aircraft - and that resulted only in two deaths. Even then it was a problem with that particular aircraft and not systemic of a TriStar flaw. That is a remarkable record for an aircraft that has spend three decades in the air.


Lockheed L-1011.


NASA/Dryden RC photo


Fatal TriStar Accidents Through November 2003

The first - which ironically proved to be the first of the widebodies to suffer a fatal accident - was the Eastern Airlines TriStar that was flown into the Everglades by its pilots (while it is true that a $.20 indicator light was not functioning, it was clearly pilot error).

The second was a Saudi L-1011 which had an on-board fire in the cargo area (the source of which was never positively determined). The pilot returned the aircraft to the airport, landed it and even taxied. He did not, however, ever order an evacuation - his faculties perhaps affected by the smoke - and all aboard dutifully died in their seats as fire engulfed the aircraft.

Another Saudi L-1011 experienced a metal fatigue problem with a landing gear which resulted in the deaths of two in 1980.

In 1985, a Delta TriStar encountered windshear on landing at Dallas/Ft Worth in Texas resulting in the deaths of 134 of 163 on board.

Finally, an Sri Lanken TriStar was damaged by a bomb in 1986 killing 14 of 128 on board.

Lockheed L-1011 TriStar

Image courtesy NASA/Dryden

Today L-1011s are remember mostly by pilots and aviation enthusiasts who appreciated this very advanced aircraft.

Lockheed L-1011 at a Glance
Engines3 Rolls-Royce RB211-524B4 turbofans
Cruising Speed595
Span164ft 6in
Length164ft 2in
Height55ft 4in
Final Production1983
Mesurements refer to L-1011-500


Share Your Memories!

What do you remember about the Lockheed L-1011? Were you a member of the flight crew on one? Have you any interesting stories to share? Share your stories with the world! (We print the best stories right here!)

Your Memories Shared!

"The TriStar was an unfortunate product but a fantastic plane, it failed to achieve even break-even sales for Lockheed and put them out of the commercial airliner business forever. However, as an aircraft, it benefitted from technologically brilliant and spanking new design techniques and infrastructure at the new Lockheed facility and was the most advanced aircraft of its time. Even when one looks at the accident index of the plane, the record may be termed as brilliant. Most passengers recall the fantastic comfort and legroom that the L-1011 Tristar offered. Like I said above, the TriStar is unfortunate to be underrated and neglected even now, and the sight of a few old ones being literally reduced to trash in their desert storage locations would sadden any aviation enthusiast.
The only few Tristars still in service are with obscure and unheard of airlines or as a few military converted aircraft. A total of 250 TriStars were built till 1984. The TriStar's direct and main competitor, the DC-10 was commercially more successful, even though the TriStar was a sounder and safer design. The only intriguing fact about many TriStar accidents is the origin of a fire from the rear of the aircraft, including the one in the Saudi TriStar fire in Riyadh in 1980 where there were no survivors. Its competitor, the DC-10 was part of many more major and minor accidents, fatal and otherwise. All said and done the TriStar remains a truly magnificient flying jet that was both brilliant and distict from the run-of-the-mill, ubliquitous twin engined jets of today."


"The time and cost overruns of the L-1011 Tri-Star compared to the DC-10 happened for a very good reason: it was a superior aircraft in nearly every way.
The race to produce the three-engine jumbos is well documented (along with McDonnell-Douglas's many short cuts) in Destination Disaster by the London Sunday Times Insight team. Among the details I remember: the L-1011's rear engine was faired into the fuselage/tailplane assembly in a far more sophisticated (and expensive) design than the DC-10's banjo construction, giving a larger vertical stablizer as well as a much more elegant profile; avionics and control systems had greater redundancy; and then there was the matter of that cargo door...
I've made many pleasant flights on Tri-Stars, with TWA and British Airways. It was one of those planes that inspire confidence. It felt solid and right. A tight ship.
On the other hand, my first transatlantic flight was made aboard a DC-10, when the catalogue of known design flaws, and consequent disasters, was still growing. In two decades of fairly frequent flying I've only had to repeat that experience on one other occasion, and that was Continental's last-ever DC-10 Atlantic crossing -- or so the stewardess told me. I wasn't sure how to take that news, as the ground crew took a hammer to close the door before pushing back."


"The airline I work for still flies the L-1011, but is in the process of parking them due to high "D" check costs. I not only work on these planes, but have flown on them quite a few times, and I can truthfully say they are a well-built aircraft, and are very smooth in the air considering their size. It is sad to see pictures of these once great airliners now sitting in pieces out in the desert."


"There are two things that I remember about the L-1011 big bird. First, I remember how unique the tail engine design was. it had an S shaped engine, that had a very high F.O.D. rating (foreign object damage) I also remember how distinct the anti-collision lights were under and on top of the airplane. There were two of them each side by side one another, above and below, and they flashed on and of. They didn't flash quickly like all the other airplanes did, but the flashing was slow. That's pretty cool."


"I always loved the TriStar as it was one of the most pleasant aircraft to fly (although this claim is always difficult to prove and justify). Pity it wasn't a commercial success. Pilots simply loved it and it never had any of the technical problems which plagued its competitor DC-10. Pitty Lockheed were so inept at marketing it.
I last flew on a Alia-Royal Jordanian TriStar 500 in 1999. Just yesterday I saw a Royal Air Force TriStar 500 converted into a tanker take off from Bahrain's Manama airport."


"My sister and I took a flight from Atlanta GA to Puerto Rico on a Delta L-1011 back in 1993 and I have to say, the thing that really stuck me was the cool, retro 70s interior. But that old bird was as smooth and quiet as some of the newer jets. After we touched down in Puerto Rico, I quizzed the pilots about the jet and all three of them agreed that it was a great airplane. Kinda sad when Delta retired all of them years later though."


"TriStars were a unique viewing treat at night - they were the ONLY airliner with TWO red anti-collision lights both on top of and under the fuselage (the Convair 990 had two on the bottom only). As if it wasn't enough, Pan Am's 500's had blinding synchronized strobes instead of the rotating type. Further, all three cargo doors had green indicator lights which were on when the doors were locked, power was on, and the plane was on the ground. What a light show!"

--Louis Gonzalez

"I have two memories of the L-1011. The first was the account of the famous crash in the Florida Everglades, and the subsequent book written about it titled (I think) "The Ghost of Flight 411." This may not be quite correct, but as I recall one of the pilots accidentally bumped the autopilot button on the steering yoke and unknowingly disengaged it. The plane slowly lost altitude and the pilots only discovered this just before it hit ground in the Everglades. A last second attempt to pull it up was unsuccessful. For whatever reason, this story and plane stuck in my mind.
Later, while in the Navy, in 1981 I was transferring duty stations to Orlando, Florida. After a leave, the last link of my trip was a hop from Atlanta to Orlando. It was a red eye flight on an L-1011. I was pretty interested in the flight because I recall the book mentioned above so was glad to actually fly the plane and see what it was like. To my surprise there were only about 6-8 passengers booked on the flight! There were, in fact, fewer passengers than flight attendants. I was sitting in the very rear row, and was the only passenger in that whole section of the plane. After getting in the air, the attendants came back and sat around me to chat. They said that even though that flight was typically a low-load run, that evening was exceptionally low--no one could recall so few passengers before. In a sense, it made it quite a memorable flight, with essentially the entire plane empty."


"I was an Instructor Flight Engineer working in the flight crew training department on the L-1011 for Lockheed in the early 70's. I also flew some production flights. The L-1011 will always be a grand airplane from a pilot and FE point of view. Lockheed really did do an excellent and superior job of designing the cockpit layout. I've flown in the DC-10 and B-747 - the TriStar's cockpit was far more advanced in it's design and layout."

--Ralph Freshour

"Of all the jet liners whom ever been there is none more beautiful and yes, sexy than the Lockheed L-1011! I am in love with this bird. Really I am."

--Edward Eugene Smith

"What a plane! Something about boarding a plane that has the "RR" Rolls Royce logo on the engines! L-1011's had a reputation for being smooth, and safe. Only one had crashed in the U.S. in the Super70s, an Eastern Airlines flight bound to Florida. One would crash at DFW airport in '85. As aircraft engines became more powerfull, the need for tri-engined aircraft diminished. Boeing's 757 and 767 aircraft could do the job, with less fuel, and crew required.
I last flew on one in 1999,on a Delta flight from Atlanta, and was amused to find that the interior had never been updated from when the plane first entered service w/Eastern Airlines. The last of the L-1011's was retired from regular U.S. airline service around 2001."


"Delta had a fleet of them in the early '70s and we loved flying in them. The DC-10s were close, but the L-1011 did everything right. The Boeing 747 looked big, is big, but the cabin layout feels cramped after several flying hours, whereas the L-1011 never did."

--Doug Willis

"The first and last time I flew a Tri Star was from Denver to Portland Oregon around Thanksgiving of 1995. The aircraft was owned by Delta, and what really struck me was the number of bathrooms available in the rear of the plane. If I remember correctly, there was no galley back there, so passengers had the run of a small hallway that connected the doors to four or five bathrooms that curved around the rear of the aircraft. The lack of a galley, and the subsequent collisions that come with having crew and passengers share such a crowded area had been removed. Great idea. Too bad that there are no longer any L1011's in scheduled service in the US."


"There are infact a total of nine Lockeed 1011-500's in service with the UK airforce. Five former British airways examples and a further four from the now defunct Pan-Am. They are used in the air to air refuelling role and as a large transport aircraft."


" Unlike Douglas, Lockheed approached potential customers for design considerations - Delta 'did' the spare parts kit, Air Canada the Cabin Service centres, others planned the cockpit or the furnishings.

Lockheed pioneered the "S-duct", that inlet to the centre engine which allowed the engine to be installed at floor level - an ingenious and expensive endeavour which Douglas attempted to licence without success. Lockheed planned remote-commanded control surfaces as did Douglas after it, but Lockheed ran the doubled command lines down the sides of the floor while Douglas ran them down the centre. This killed a thousand passengers when the floor collapsed due to Douglas failure to design cargo doors properly haste). The London Times aviation editor chronicled the fiasco as a result of President Nixon's permission to hide US faults from competing Russians.
The beauty of the L-1011 was its aerodynamics design. An innovation was the Direct Lift Control panels which kept the aircraft from 'dipping' its nose to descend (on a landing glidepath when too high) or rearing its head when wanting to rise (when too low). This lack of "nodding" meant a fixed nose-up angle on final approach and made it possible to assure an angle of 12 degrees above the horizon. Since the glideslope beam was 3 degrees Down, this meant that the Pilot could look down 9 degrees to see exactly where the aircraft was bound. 9 degrees was the exact angle of the top of the instrument panel, and the pilot'sd eyes were in a fixed spot in the cockpit by a head-siting device. Thus all the pilot need do was to align the intended touchdown spot with the coaming and adjust the glideslope with the engines. An "alpha-angle sensor" saved staring at the airspeed, and the DLC panels kept the 'plane steady.
Nor was this all! The wings of all aircraft tend to level the plane in "ground effect" - that compressing of the air under the wing as it nears the surface. This levelling effect began at about 50 feet and rotated the plane until the tail came into ground effect. At this juncture, the TriStar was in perfect position to assure a 12 degree noseup flare and an excellent touchdown was possible. Thus landing the 1011 was easier, and in fact an Automatic Approach and Landing was my 'teacher"'! In fact, the TriStar showed me how to land it - not my instructor!
There are too many facets proving the Lockheed L-1011 to be the most natural, competent design ever to have been conceived. Others followed but relied upon digital electronics controls to overcome their deficiencies in aping the qualities of the TriStar. By contrast, the Douglas ship was built in 21 less months than the lordly L-1011 - started nine months late and delivered a year before (or was it the other way 'round?).
I know, I flew the TriStar for 15 years."

--Ferg Kyle - Air Canada

"In 1992 I flew on a Caledonian Airways L1011 from Manchester, UK to Orlando. The carpet was fraying, there were odd coloured seats mixed in with the regular ones, there was paint flaking off of the radome, the movie screen's protective cover kept falling off and the ceiling fascia wouldn't stay on the ceiling. Despite all of this, something about that aeroplane felt safe and well built. We landed at Bangor, Maine to refuel and as we were about to take off again, I could see the awesome power of the Rolls Royce RB211 engine sucking up puddles of rainwater from the runway. . . with the engine at idle! I live in the city of Derby, UK, where the RB211 was built and have met a lot of engineers that worked on the engine and they seemed proud of it. "


"I was 10 years old when I first stepped onto this huge aircraft. I can remember looking out the window seat at all the taxi and runway lights as this was not only my first flight ever, but a night op to boot. I remember the over all size and power of the aircraft that had me in complete amazement as I looked around at all the seats and how they seemed to go on and on like a never ending hall way in those horror movies. Mid-flight a flight attendent came up to me and asked if I would like to see the cockpit and I could not get out of my seat fast enough to go visit. The pilots were the most amazing people I had ever met in my short life. They showed my some of the insturments in this monster of a cockpit. The FO leaned over and put a pair of plastic wings on my shirt as I was getting ready to return to my seat. That was the most triumphant 80 feet of marching I have done. It ended it what seemed minutes even though the flight was a good three hours or so.

This plane, the crew as well as the overall trip is why I am a pilot today. I will never forget that plane, the pilots, or the innocence of the time. My only regret is that due to the fact of some cowards and their foolishness, I can not share this experience with anyone else unless I put it in a short story. Thank you for reading my story and I hope this aircraft has touched others in this fashion as well."

--chevy pilot

"Having been an engineer working on the L1011 for about 30 years I can say it was the best built and engineered aircraft ever made. So far ahead of its time, they did need a lot of tender loving care, but what a machine. I really do miss them. "


""I first flew on an L-1011 Tristar in August 1973 between Boston and San Francisco that belonged to Eastern Airlines but was leased to TWA. Both airlines had an exchange program, flying each other's equipment back during the early Super70s. This is a remarkable aircraft and the most comfortable of the widebodied trijets, and certainly more comfortable than the DC-10. The fuselage is roughly a foot wider than its Douglas counterpart but shorter. All Tristars are powered by three Rolls Royce RB-211 engines that are exceptionally quiet. They are, however, extremely noisy and sometime smoke up during engine start, sounding like a deep-voiced man exhaling a throaty 'ahhhh' that vibrate the cabin and, in some cases, airport terminal windows. TWA and Delta were the main U. S. operators of L-1011 Tristars. The latter was the last major U. S. carrier to fly them. Though the second widebodied jet to enter service behind the Boeing 747, the Tristar fell behind the DC-10 in production from the very beginning when Rolls Royce went on strike - a major setback for Lockheed. Today, very few are flying with major air carriers throughout the world. Sadly, Tristar production ceased the moment Lockheed decided to bow out of the passenger aircraft industry and proceed in other ventures such as the defense industry. Long live the Tristar!""

--Harald A.



Image courtesy of United

Model: L-1011

Manufacturer: Lockheed

Country: US

First Flight: November 16, 1970

First Passenger Flight: April 26, 1972

Launch CustomerEastern

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