The Lockheed L-1011 TriStar – forever the bridesmaid, never the bride

Sri Lankans of a certain age will recall the TriStar fondly. It was the flagship of national carrier Air Lanka at a time when the country was exiting a long period of austerity with hopes of ushering in the dawn of prosperity.

The glory days of air travel

Earlier, the 1960s had been a wonderful time for air travel. With the major airlines either owned by their governments or enjoying a cosy government-regulated oligopoly as in the USA, the customer base was assured.

The industry had consolidated into a few major manufacturers, with US giants Boeing and Douglas (the latter soon becoming McDonnell Douglas) dominating the market. The Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 were trend-setters on international services, but as the Seventies approached, both ‘planemakers were planning replacements.

Boeing, at the time run by its peerless engineers, had just taken a huge gamble and launched the 747. Unimaginably large for its time, the original ‘jumbo jet’ was a risky bet. But airlines with vision, such as Pan American then enjoying its heyday, were quick to order the type.

Realizing the need to have a competitive aircraft, McDonnell Douglas soon understood that the ideal size for a rival type would be between that of the giant 747 and its own DC-8, which was still dominating the international scene.

Regulations at the time limited twin-engine types to operating within one hour’s flying time from an airport, so a three-engine configuration was the obvious compromise for cost and range. A wider cabin with two aisles, making it much more spacious than the narrow DC-8, was regarded as a necessity. Using the huge CF6 engine being developed by General Electric, the DC-10 was soon on the drawing boards at the Long Beach, California headquarters of McDonnell Douglas. With American Airlines as a launch customer, the DC-10 looked like being a success from day one.

Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, also based in California, was at the leading edge of aircraft development. Lockheed’s ‘Skunk Works’, under the legendary Kelly Johnson, had produced a series of marvelous military aircraft. The top secret SR-71 ‘Blackbird’ reconnaissance aircraft, flying at Mach 3 (three times the speed of sound), showcased the technological prowess of which Lockheed’s engineers were capable.

Determined to produce the world’s ‘best and safest’ airliner, Lockheed too entered the fray with a model designated the L-1011 TriStar.

Design and early development

Lockheed’s thinking broadly mirrored that of engineers at McDonnell Douglas. Three engines were regarded as ideal, and a wide twin-aisle cabin was a necessity.

The selection of engines was to be a fateful step in the history of the L-1011. GE’s CF6 production was committed to the DC-10, and Boeing had cornered the market for Pratt & Whitney’s JT9 engine, so choices were limited. But rival manufacturer Rolls-Royce, another legendary engineering company, was touting their RB211 model, a revolutionary new design with not two but three turbines. It promised to be quiet, efficient and very compact – an ideal combination for Lockheed’s demanding engineers.

So the concept of the new model was established, and a campaign to name the aircraft decided on the ‘TriStar’ designation. This was an amalgamation of Lockheed’s tradition of using ‘stellar’ names (such as the legendary Constellation, or ‘Connie’; Electra; and several earlier types including Vega, Lodestar, etc) and the three-engine design of the L-1011.

The design team had developed systems and capabilities for the TriStar that were ahead of any other contemporary aircraft. The quality of the design and levels of system redundancy exceeded all regulatory requirements. A fully automatic autopilot landing system capable of Category 3C conditions with zero forward visibility, was just one of the innovations that Lockheed’s engineers built into the L-1011. The Direct Lift Control feature, which enabled pilots to adjust their vertical profile without a pitch change, was another innovation that was groundbreaking. The TriStar had ‘fly by wire’ electronic flight controls for some of its surfaces, long before Airbus even existed.

Sales success

Initial sales of the TriStar were very promising. While American Airlines had already decided on the DC-10, Lockheed was able to sign up US giant Eastern Air Lines as the launch customer, as well as Delta, Pan American, TWA and Air Canada – giving the L-1011 a firm foothold in North America.

Foreign sales were promising too, with British Airways leading the way, possibly encouraged by the type’s Rolls-Royce engines. Cathay Pacific, also British-owned though based in Hong Kong, was another to sign up for the TriStar early on. Soon to follow were All Nippon Airways (ANA) of Japan, Gulf Air and Saudia in the Middle East. Buoyed by those orders, the TriStar was starting to show signs of becoming a sales success.

Then came the scandals. It was revealed that Lockheed had paid USD 3 million in bribes to various parties in Japan, including the Prime Minister, to secure the sale of ten aircraft to ANA. Similarly, large commissions paid to prominent Saudi figures were alleged to have ‘facilitated’ orders in the Middle East.

Consequently, both the Chairman and the President of Lockheed resigned in 1976. The outrage played a part in the formulation of US President Jimmy Carter’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, signed into law in December 1977, which made it illegal for American persons and entities to bribe foreign government officials.

Rolls-Royce fails to deliver

Before the bribery scandals broke, Lockheed was on track to deliver the aircraft on schedule – until the engine manufacturer ran into serious financial trouble. The development of the RB211 was far more difficult than estimated, and persistent technical difficulties forced Rolls-Royce into bankruptcy in 1971. (The company’s much smaller but profitable Motor Car Division was, however, separated and saved as a separate entity, which was ultimately sold to the Vickers conglomerate in 1980.)

The British government agreed to a bailout of the Rolls-Royce Aero Engine Division, but required the US government to guarantee the launch of the TriStar, which was the only customer thus far for the new engine. This was reluctantly agreed to, but penalties for any delay in engine delivery were also cancelled, a decision which would cost Lockheed dearly.

Ultimately, the RB211 engine’s emergence was more than a year late, resulting in Lockheed being finally able to deliver the TriStar in April 1972, with Eastern Airlines becoming the launch customer. This meant a crucial gap of almost a year, as the rival DC-10 had begun flying with American and United in August 1971.

Always the bridesmaid never the bride

For all its technical advances and admirably safe record, the L-1011 was never able to displace the DC-10 as the market leader. The complexity of the aircraft also meant that maintenance demands were heavy and expensive.

As aircraft engines continued to evolve and become more reliable, both arch-rival Boeing and upstart Airbus launched twin-engined wide-body airliners that offered superior economics to the tri-jets.

The oil crisis of 1973 and resulting recession also took a heavy toll on sales of the TriStar. Not even the horrific DC-10 crashes in 1972 and 1974, which were due to a flawed design of the cargo door locking mechanism, dented that type’s sales lead. The market was never large enough to support two rival aircraft so similar in size and mission – something had to give.

The TriStar for Air Lanka

The selection of the L-1011 aircraft by Air Lanka was almost inevitable. The airline had started operations in 1979 (as the successor to Air Ceylon) with two Boeing 707s leased from Singapore Airlines. At the time there were only three aircraft types in the wide-body range that were deemed suitable for long-haul operations: the Boeing 747, McDonnell Douglas DC-10, and – the least popular of the trio – the L-1011 TriStar.

Naturally, the Boeing was considered too big for a new airline such as Air Lanka. The DC-10 had been dogged by major accidents, with another catastrophic DC-10 accident in 1979 making more headlines for the wrong reasons. This led to the grounding of the entire DC-10 fleet, further dampening enthusiasm for the ‘Ten’. The new kid on the block, Airbus’s A300B4 twin-engine wide-body jet was available at the time, but whether this was even considered by Air Lanka is not known.

This meant that the TriStar was basically Air Lanka’s only choice, as opting for the DC-10 would have been a very brave move at the time. By doing so, in some ways the future of the Sri Lanka’s flag carrier was decided.

Initial versions of the L-1011-100 (‘Dash 100’) for Air Lanka came from Air Canada, who also assisted with the type’s introduction in Sri Lanka. Later models were also pre-owned aircraft, sourced from ANA. But Air Lanka eventually ordered two brand-new examples of the Dash 500 version direct from Lockheed.

Sadly, these were almost the last production models of this fine airliner, as Lockheed quit the civilian market shortly after the sale to Sri Lanka was made. The two aircraft for Air Lanka were numbers 235 and 236 off the production line. Manufacturing ceased when the 250th L-1011, configured for VIP operations, was delivered to the Algerian government in March 1983, leaving Air Lanka with an obsolete aircraft type as its flagship.

It is worth noting that with the acquisition of other TriStars, either on short- or long-term leases, Air Lanka earned the possibly unique distinction of having operated every factory-produced variant of the TriStar (with the exception of the Dash 250, which resulted from an engine upgrade modification carried out by Delta Airlines). TriStar sub-types operated by Air Lanka were the Dash 1, -50, -100, -200, and -500. The airline also leased a ‘500’ from Royal Jordanian Airlines, and Dash 200s from British Airways.

The TriStar performed yeoman service for Air Lanka until the late 1990s. But increasing maintenance demands and poor fuel economy meant that the costs to the airline were disproportionate. The rapid obsolescence of the aircraft also meant that residual values were minimal, making replacement of the type a costly proposition. In some ways the airline’s fateful decision to acquire the Lockheed for its fleet, though logical at the time, meant that Air Lanka would never be profitable, always dogged with high costs of aircraft ownership and maintenance.

How it all played out

Ironically, despite the DC-10’s Chicago accident in 1979, which was attributed to faulty maintenance procedures by the operating airline, the McDonnell Douglas tri-jet experienced a resurgence in sales, remaining in production for many years thereafter. As further proof of the soundness of the type’s basic design, a later and larger version, dubbed the MD-11, enjoyed a successful tenure too, especially in the freighter role.

The Airbus A300 went on to a long future as well, with its sister A310 proving very popular with small- to medium-sized airlines. Today Airbus, with a vast and varied stable of aircraft, is the world’s dominant manufacturer of passenger jets.

The Rolls-Royce RB211 engine, in a later iteration dubbed the ‘Trent’, went on to be one of the dominant large jet engines in the market. RR’s Trent -700 and -800 engines, fitted to the Airbus 330 and Boeing 777 respectively, are the power-plant of choice for much of the world’s wide-body jets today.

Lockheed on the other hand, having turned its back on the civilian market, became a military aviation powerhouse and is today one of the largest companies in the aerospace business. It is also very profitable, something that the L-1011 with a total production run of only 250 aircraft never achieved.




8 responses to “The Lockheed TriStar – a forgotten marvel”

  1. Smokey Avatar

    Thank you for this very erudite article!

  2. Eardley Abayaratna Avatar

    Thank you Suren for a well written article.
    Having worked extensively on this aircraft at both at Airlanka/SriLankan and GAMCO, I must say it was a wonderful aircraft that was too advanced for its time.
    When Tristars came to Sri Lanka , even a Transistor radio was a rare find. During our days as apprentices, the then GM Engineering once said – ” even the bloody toilet pumps are electronically controlled” . Golden memories of one of the finest commercial airplanes.

    1. Suren Ratwatte Avatar

      Hi Eardley, Good to hear from you. Yeah with hindsight the L-1011 was too advanced for Sri Lanka in the 1980s! We could just about cope with the 707/737 at the time. Such a great machine though and a pity that Lockheed didn’t stay with the design and produce more models.

  3. Rayford Stastny Avatar

    Superb blog you have here but I was wanting to know if you knew of any message boards that cover the same topics talked about here? I’d really like to be a part of community where I can get responses from other knowledgeable people that share the same interest. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. Bless you!

    1. Suren Ratwatte Avatar

      Thanks Ray. Not sure about any message boards that cover the same ground – I’ve gone off Pprune and the like as they just wind up being arguments. This sort of reflects my eclectic point of view on a variety of aviation related topics.

      feel free to respond and let’s try to get a conversation going!

  4. Paul van der Blom Avatar

    Informative (especially the historic link between Air Lanka and the Tristar) and very well-written. I recall the TriStars of Air Lanka (and Gulf Air, TWA) coming to Schiphol Amsterdam. Thank you, Suren.

    1. Suren Ratwatte Avatar

      That’s right Paul we did AUH-AMS with a lot of freight. One thing I didn’t mention was the lower galley in the older L1011s. I suppose airfreight was not important in the ’60s when it was designed.
      That was fixed with the later models. The -500 galley was on the main deck and that meant a lot more cargo space.

  5. Cody Guetierrez Avatar

    Do you have a spam issue on this blog; I also am a blogger, and I was curious about your situation; many of us have developed some nice practices and we are looking to swap strategies with others, why not shoot me an e-mail if interested.

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