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Lockheed L-1011

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
Engines 3 Rolls-Royce RB211-524B4 turbofans
Cruising Speed 595
Passengers 315
Range 7010
Span 164ft 6in
Length 164ft 2in
Height 55ft 4in
Weight 510,000
Built 249
Final Production 1983
Mesurements refer to L-1011-500