Lockheed L-1011 TriStar. The plane that was too good to be true

In the 1960s the world of civil aviation met the jet engine. It seemed like the possibilities from here are endless as aircraft range, efficiency and comfort has allowed for more passengers to purchase tickets. Airlines thrived. But they were not sitting on their laurels – they wanted more. That is why airline executives and engineers approached manufacturers to build new planes that would meet their needs.

That is how the story of Lockheed‘s L-1011 TriStar began. American Airlines needed an aircraft which could transfer passengers from their hubs in New York and Dallas to routes across the Atlantic and to South America. Frank Kolk, the Chief engineer of American Airlines approached Boeing, Douglas and Lockheed. Boeing was already busy, as they were developing the 737 and the Jumbo Jet 747. But AA needed something between those two – an aircraft that would carry more passengers than the 737, yet consume less fuel than the 747, as it was afraid it could not fill the seats.

Douglas came up with the DC-10. A tri-engine jet that shared a lot of similarities with the previous DC-8, to save costs. Lockheed decided to go all out. To quote, Lockheed would „take the most advanced technology of the day and when that technology was lacking, create it.“

Going Against The Wind

The technology behind the assembly was inspiring. Yet it had a lot to prove – airlines did not care about the technology that much. They trusted the brands that built them (For example, Airbus had a very hard time getting into the US market as well) and Lockheed had a dent in its body. While it was a very successful military aviation manufacturer, the last adventure to the civilian market was costly – the L-188 Electra had a lot of issues and out of 170 built, 58 have been written off after accidents.

Even though Lockheed‘s technological advancements were clearly ahead of its time, it came at a price. Well, literally. It was just slightly cheaper than the 747 and significantly more expensive than the DC-10. So American Airlines and United ditched Lockheed and went with the cheaper DC-10.

Although losing two main launching customers was costly, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. They had a lot of design freedom and they could engineer a marvel.

And boy, they did.

A poster advertising Eastern and the Lockheed TriStar
A poster advertising Eastern and the TriStar

Over Engineered?

The TriStar had a configuration of 400 passengers (20 more than the DC-10) and was much more efficient. It achieved that through its S-duct at the back – other aircraft mounted their engines directly on the fuselage, while the TriStar had a duct feeding air into the engine. Lockheed chose the Rolls-Royce RB211 and it built the aircraft and the S-duct around the Rolls-Royce power plant.

But that engine, while being much better than the competitors’ engines, proved to be the downfall of the program. There was a huge elephant in the room – Rolls-Royce finances. The company went bankrupt and only the British government saved them, after getting guarantees that the company would still have business. That meant that the US government had to guarantee loans from banks so that Lockheed would be able to complete the TriStar.

Here comes the most interesting part – the avionic systems. The AFCS (Avionic Flight Control system) of TriStar included autopilot, speed control, a flight control system, a navigation system, stability system and a direct lift control system. But the cherry on top was the CAT-IIIB Autoland system. One of the main selling features of Lockheed – the system was able to land the plane automatically. Even in bad weather conditions.

Lockheed had a goal to develop a system, that would land the aircraft as if it was a human landing it. On 25th of May, 1972, the TriStar completed a fully automated flight and even now, more than 40 years later, the technology seems ahead of its time.

The Final Landing

The TriStar was just too late. The DC-10 came off the ground a year earlier. The massive costs and losing customers to McDonnell Douglas meant that the company ran the program at a huge loss. It needed to sell more than 500 aircraft to make a profit. It sold half of that number. DC-10 sold over 400 aircraft.

Lockheed decided to finally pull out of the civil market completely, as the TriStar almost plunged them into another bankruptcy. Lockheed also managed to put itself in a PR disaster – they bribed people in the Japanese government to partly pay for All Nippon Airways’ purchase of the TriStar. Japanese police uncovered those bribes, which led to the arrest of several Japanese officials.  Consequently also to the resignation of several of Lockheed’s management members.

While McDonnell Douglas won this race, eventually they also lost the Grand-Prix championship. The DC-10 was severely unreliable and had a lot of issues. Already in dire straits financially, McDonnell Douglas could not compete with Boeing, so it merged with them.

But the legacy it left behind will never be forgotten – not only from an aviation perspective but from a business one. When 2 rivals compete for a market that can only fit one of them, somebody has to give in. And funnily enough, both of the companies eventually had to give in.

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