The Lockheed L-1011 Was An Incredibly Advanced Aircraft That Ended Up A Total Failure

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Just over 50 years ago, a widebody trijet aircraft took to the skies with the promise of being the most advanced airliner on earth. The Lockheed L-1011 TriStar was a luxurious airliner with technology so far ahead of its time that it could land itself. Yet, a series of unfortunate events and even a major scandal led it to go down in history as a commercial failure.

The story of the L-1011 takes us back to the 1960s. In the prior decade, the introduction of the jet airliner had revolutionized commercial travel. The graceful de Havilland Comet was first, and was soon followed by a bunch of competition from all over. Travelers were captivated by jets, which made the world feel a little smaller. Jump to the 1960s, and airlines were looking to expand, with the goal of flying more people on larger metal birds.

In the mid-1960s, American Airlines went shopping around for a widebody airliner that could haul 250 passengers on transcontinental flights. This aircraft would be smaller than Boeing’s then-upcoming jumbo jet, but larger than a narrowbody. As aviation-focused website Aerotime Hub notes, Boeing was already at work developing the 737 and 747, so that left Douglas (later McDonnell Douglas) and Lockheed.

Lockheed found itself in a tough spot. It hadn’t built an airliner since the L-188 Electra turboprop, and production for that ended in 1961. Meanwhile, Douglas had already seen success producing jet airliners with its DC-8. It also had recently launched its smaller DC-9. Lockheed decided to get back into commercial aviation, and to dominate the market it planned to build an airplane that took advantage of bleeding-edge technology.

Photo Credit: Lockheed California Corporation

The two manufacturers also differentiated themselves in how they developed their widebodies. As airline industry-focused website Airline Reporter reported, the McDonnell Douglas approach was to get the DC-10 into the skies on a firm budget. Cost overruns were unacceptable, even at the expense of potential design flaws. This would later come to bite McDonnell Douglas, as the aircraft’s early cargo door design allowed it to appear properly closed when it wasn’t. The DC-10 would go on to have the deadliest air crash in history at the time in Turkish Airlines Flight 981.

Lockheed’s strategy was different. Where Douglas was conservative, Lockheed wanted to build a plane so advanced that if technologies didn’t exist to make something happen, the manufacturer would invent it.

Lockheed initially saw the L-1011 as being a widebody twinjet. However, engine technology of the day would have limited the aircraft’s performance. At the same time, the FAA’s “60 Minute Rule” was in place. This rule initially required aircraft with fewer than four engines to fly within 60 minutes of the nearest airport in case of an emergency. This would make an international flight a non-starter. However, the FAA eventually waived the requirement for trijets, paving the way for three-engine aircraft to dot the skies for years.

An Advanced Aircraft

One way that Lockheed’s design departed from the competition was in the construction of its fuselage.

Lockheed made use of metal-to-metal bonding for the fuselage. That in itself wasn’t amazing, as other manufacturers also moved from rivets to bonding. However, the Lockheed deviated from the norm by developing an adhesive so strong that a one square inch of bonding holding two straps together was enough to suspend a car into the sky.

Photo Credit: Lockheed California Corporation

The book, Lockheed TriStar: The Most Technologically Advanced Commercial Jet of Its Time, further described the strength of Lockheed’s bonding. In it, the book describes that bonding made the materials substantially stronger while extending service life and adding a ton of corrosion resistance.

And since Lockheed was doing this at such a large scale, the aircraft’s parts were put into the then-largest autoclave in the industry. Inside, the autoclave would use heat and pressure to cure the bonds.

Photo Credit: Lockheed California Corporation

Another way that Lockheed intended to blow the Douglas out of the water was in the flight deck. The L-1011 is perhaps best remembered for its advanced bespoke avionics. The AFCS (Avionic Flight Control System) list of systems was vast and included a speed control system, an inertial navigation system, a stability augmentation system, and more. Lockheed’s Direct Lift Control system was a part of the package and it is notable on its own. The DLC reduced pilot load during landings by automatically deploying spoilers.

Its effect was that the aircraft would have an easier time staying on glideslope without the pilots having to make significant changes to the aircraft’s pitch.

Photo Credit: Delta Air Lines

But the advanced avionics is perhaps best known for its then novel autoland feature. While not the first commercial aircraft to be able to land itself (that goes to the Hawker Siddeley HS-121 Trident) it was the first widebody to get FAA certification to do so. What it meant was that the L-1011 could land in zero visibility conditions that would force other aircraft to divert.

And the hard work done to create such an advanced aircraft wasn’t just limited to its construction and technology. Inside, the cabin was designed to evoke the feelings of being home.

Photo Credit: Lockheed California Corporation

Passengers got to enjoy an airy cabin with glare-resistant windows, full coat closets, and a circle of lavatories in the rear just under the intake for the number two (center) engine. The cabin also featured wide aisles and even a below-deck galley and lounge.

All of it added up to an experience that airlines marketed as being luxurious and whisper quiet.

Photo Credit: Lockheed California Corporation

Turbulent Skies

Speaking of those engines, now we’re getting to the part where Lockheed’s ambitions began to fall apart. Lockheed chose the Rolls-Royce RB211 turbofan to power the TriStar. Rolls-Royce shot for the stars with a more complex design than the competition. This engine promised a quieter, more economical operation along with a better power-to-weight ratio than the General Electric CF6 turbofans chosen for the DC-10.

Unfortunately, Rolls-Royce burned so much money during the development of the RB211 that the company went into receivership in early 1971. Unfortunately, by the time that this happened the L-1011’s engineering was already finalized. One element of the L-1011’s design–the S-duct feeding the number two engine–was designed specifically for the RB211 which was smaller than competing engines.

Photo Credit: IPC Business Press LTD.

Since fitting another engine wouldn’t fit, Lockheed stuck to the plan. The British government would eventually nationalize Rolls-Royce Limited to save its workforce and restart operations. DC-10 and the L-1011 both had close design schedules. However, this delay would slow the Lockheed’s development by two years. This was just enough time to allow the DC-10 to launch about a year before the TriStar’s 1972 launch.

That later than anticipated introduction dealt blows to the aircraft’s sales. American Airlines went with the DC-10, leaving the Eastern Air Lines to be the L-1011’s launch customer. Now, Lockheed had to play catch-up against an airliner that had already been on sale for about a year.

Sales of the L-1011 were also mired in controversy. In an effort to score an order from All Nippon Airways, Lockheed paid $7 million to Yoshio Kodama, a figure with ties to the Japanese underworld. Kodama’s job was to influence the government to subsidize the purchase of L-1011 aircraft for the airline. Lockheed paid an additional $3 million in bribes to Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka’s office for assistance. A New York Times piece details that this wasn’t Lockheed’s first rodeo with bribery, and it had sent countless millions to officials in other countries to sell planes.

Despite arriving on the scene late and scandalous, the plane proved to be a favorite for travelers and flight crews alike. As today’s Lockheed Martin remarks, one pilot called it “the most intelligent airliner ever to fly.” The aircraft even proved to be a safe workhorse just as designed.

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Photo Credit: Lockheed California Corporation


Lockheed needed to sell 500 TriStars for the project to be profitable. When the aircraft’s production ended in 1984, Lockheed sold just 250 examples. Meanwhile, McDonnell Douglas moved just under 400 DC-10s by 1988. The TriStar’s failure would cause Lockheed to pull out of civil aviation entirely. The DC-10 was the victor, but McDonnell Douglas still didn’t make enough money. It couldn’t even afford to make a DC-10 successor. Thus, when the world moved to big twins all McDonnel Douglas could do was the MD-11 trijet.

We’re now a little over 50 years past the aircraft’s introduction and 38 years after the last was built. Today, the TriStar is remembered as one of the most advanced airliners to ever fly, even though it was a total financial failure. Sadly, if you’re feeling nostalgic you won’t be able to fly on one. The last known active L-1011 is Orbital ATK’s ‘Stargazer.’ Originally an Air Canada passenger airliner, it’s now a mobile launch platform.

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49 Responses

  1. I’ve flown in several. The cabin configuration was a bit different than what they had when these pics were published. I remember Coach, Business and First sections. First on an L-1011 trans-atlantic was such a great ride. Especially when I was making the trip almost every month.

      1. Me too, and I recall the same thing (esp. the coach seats).

        Once, a guy who’d been in the business told me the wing spars on these were extremely solid. That made me feel better, esp. as we were on our way to a kinda dangerous place.

        1. I was on a Honolulu to DFW L-1011 flight once when the pilot came on the PA to tell us we just hit Mach 1. Didn’t even shudder, thank God.

          Also speaking of MD, a pilot friend once told me that the MD-88 (which I also flew on quite a bit) were so overpowered, that they were damned near stall proof and a few more feet of wingspan could put them in low orbit. The low orbit bit was an exaggeration, but the guy was an AF fighter pilot and was then flying 88s on the regular.

  2. These were my favorite planes to fly on. One reason was the TriStar had greater airflow per person in economy than its competitors. It also did not recirculate air like modern airliners and all but the earliest 747s do. This made a huge difference back when people were allowed to smoke on planes.

  3. The design is cool, but a little questionable. There was an Eastern Air crash where the #2 (tail) engine shelled out and effectively destroyed all hydraulics since they were all run right next to it in the tail section. That was kinda dumb. Nowadays we still have engines shell out, sometimes spectacularly (and captured on phone cameras)… but it’s almost impossible for them to destroy all hydraulics being out there isolated on the wing. Still, it’d be cool to have centerline thrust in a heavy airliner.

    1. That plane was able to land, the Tristar had 4 hydraulic lines and one of them survived the engine failure. The one that crashed was United 232, a DC10, which had 3 hydraulic lines, all of which were severed by the exploding engine.

    2. I believe you are conflating the Eastern Air Lines Flight 401, operated by a L-1011, with the United Airlines Flight 232. The latter is the one where the tail engine fan exploded, severing all hydraulic lines. That was a DC-10, not a L-1011.

      The Eastern Airlines crash was caused when all three pilots were trying to determine whether the nose landing gear had extended and one accidentally turned off the autopilot. There could be another incident with which I am unfamiliar, but they one you are thinking of was definitely a DC-10.

      1. Update: Just noticed Rixelieu’s comment, and that is probably what Fe2 O3 is referring to. It was Eastern Airlines flight 935, and the airplane was able to land safely with no injuries or fatalities because the L-2011 had four hydraulic systems, unlike the DC-10, which only had three.

    3. As far as I’m aware, there was an Eastern Air incident where the tail engine had an uncontained failure (Eastern flight 935). But that L-1011 (equipped with four hydraulic systems over the DC-10’s three) made a safe landing.

      United 232, a flight that was operated by a DC-10, suffered the scenario that you describe. That one may be worthy of an article on its own one day because those pilots managed to keep the bird flying despite so few working controls.

      1. A coworker of my wife was on United 232 for a business trip. He survived, but quit his job because even after going through that, their employer was still going to require air travel for his job.

        It is amazing that they came as close as they did to actually landing it with just the throttles for the two wing engines for control.

        1. It’s stuff like this that I point to when people start talking about autonomous airliners. There’s no way a computer could have saved as many people as the pilots did that day.

      2. You’re likely right; I didn’t bother to google and relied on spotty memory. Maybe I was combining the two in my head. Didn’t one or both of these kill a whole bunch of people though?

  4. My cousin worked for Lockheed on the L-1011 team. He was incredibly proud of how good an aircraft it was. From the bonding, to the interior, to the avionics/control systems. He once told me that it was built better than any other airliner, bar none. He got a laugh when I asked him to compare it to a DC-10. He said there was no comparison, except that they both had 3 engines. He made sure that I was able to fly back home on one after a visit to his family. He was right. No aircraft before or since, impressed me more. Great aircraft. Sad that they didn’t sell better. I would happily fly in one today.

  5. I rode one of these ca. 1998/9 TPA/CVG back when CVG was a DL hub. Even though smoking had been banned in flight for some time, there was still a whiff of dirty ashtray on this ratty old bird. The back of the plane, under the intake to the #2 tail engine, was loud as hell and vibrated badly. But to be fair the plane was probably pushing 25 years old then and bound for the boneyard not long after that ride.

    I think Delta had removed that center row divider and crammed another seat in there making it 2-5-2 across, which was the usual setup on DC-10s and some 777s back then. United and American ripped those out of their 777s and installed narrower seats making it 3-4-3 across. Not looking forward to 12+ hours on an American 772 to TLV on Friday in the skinny seats…

    Unfortunately I never got to fly a TriStar when they were newer.

    1. Oh and that old b/w pic at the end? Notice no overheads for the center rows. That’s because bag check was free and nobody was dragging their entire fucking household on board with then to avoid bag fees.

  6. I heard two stories:
    * From my dad (an aeronautical engineer with McDonnell-Douglas) the relatively low exit of the L-1011’s center engine thrust ruled it out as basis for the Air Force tanker program that eventually resulted in the DC-10-based KC-10.
    * From some book, the U.S. Secret Service wouldn’t allow the President to fly on an L-1011.

  7. I flew on one of these once. It was a very different experience than being on a 747. The flight wasn’t very full, and the plane seemed gigantic inside. And those long, long wings flex a lot more than the wings on smaller aircraft. It was a bit disconcerting to watch, although I’m sure I would have gotten used to it if I flew on these planes more often. I think those flexy wings gave it a smoother ride through turbulence, though.

    It was probably the most relaxed, comfortable flight I have ever been on. I generally hate flying because because the experience is just so cramped, noisy, stinky and awful. But that one flight was genuinely very nice.

  8. Great article on a fantastic technical achievement, backed by some serious lack of business savvy (IIRC they were roughly 50% more expensive than the DC-10, which as ever was number that mattered).

    One note on the autoland system- while the L-1011 was the first ALS-equipped plane to be certified for ILS Category III approaches, those are not zero visibility approaches but merely reduced minimums below which un-aided pilots are allowed to fly (ie.- flying Cat III approaches requires an autoland system). Even today, no airplane is approved for true zero visibility Cat IIIC landings, though there are starting to be some efforts towards developing a cert package for modern airliners.

    1. And I just noticed where this misconception comes from: Wikipedia helpfully but incorrectly states that the L-1011 was approved for Category IIIC landings, which is currently impossible. The 1011 is approved for a Category IIIB approach which does indeed have zero decision height, but Cat IIIC requires automated taxi systems that don’t exist yet at any airport, much less in 1970.

  9. I am a Delta Million Miler and they had many L1011s for their long routes back in the day. I hated them. Unlike these spacious interior pictures, Delta’s 2-5-2 row alignment seemed like a giant cow corral. The “airy” ceiling meant there was no luggage space for the center aisle and there were no good sight lines to the video screens. Back then, you could waitlist and catch an earlier flight but on L1011s you always ended up in one of the center-center seats with no bag storage which was miserable. Good riddance for a bad idea.

    1. I flew from ATL to SLC on one of those on the first business trip I ever made. The company travel agent didn’t get me a seat assignment, so when I arrived at the airport, the only seats left were the middle of the 5. It was the worst flight ever, for all the reasons that you mentioned and that we got stuck on the tarmac in ATL for quite a while and the AC couldn’t keep up. It was a brutally cramped sweatbox.

      I’ve travelled a lot for business in the 30 years since that flight, but I’ve always avoided Delta after that misery.

  10. Say what you want to about the DC-10s, but many are still flying. I live in Northern California where major wildland fires are the norm. I smile every time I see one of 10 Tanker Air Carrier planes in the sky overhead.

  11. I wanted YOU TO KNOW MERCEDES—–

    The SMITHSONIAN MUSEUM is specifically dediciated to Planes. But being in the VA, DC area.. the main location of the SMITHSONIAN was closed for redo. SO all of the Bus trips got detoured to UDVAR HAZY CENTER. (It was SO named because Steven UDVAR HAZYs business was Plane Leasing and FINANCE. Wikipedia and or the Innanet knows he got caught up in the banking bs of 2012 or so.)

    Back on Track:
    The Steven Udvar Hazy Center is located in Chantilly VA and.. is specifically dedicated to PLANES. Not just cutouts and tours and all that malarky… but seeing the physical plane in front of you and being able to look at it and examine it. Its a beautiful sight.

    I was there with my wife when the place opened in 04-07. I went ape shit for: Enterprise Shuttle, the CONCORDE, the 707, the Spirit of St Louis and the SR-71.

    I just came back… from a trip there with my 90T trailer (my boy) and my wife. Trailer and I both went ape over much of the same things… only things have changed: The ENTERPRISE Shuttle was swapped out for the Discovery. Spirit of St Louis wasnt there. SR-71 was still there.. the 707 was still there.. and the CONCORDE was also still there. To top it off, they had built on a massive series of CATWALKS so you could take the most detailed pictures!!!!

    THEY did not have a TRIJET! Also.. as I do appreciate planes, they were selling err whoring out the SR-71 in all manner of products. But they had no models of the Concorde, TriJet or the 707 or much else. I had to hit AMAZON for that shit. They also didnt have models of any VTOL or planes in the Hanger.

    You need to go…

    The UDVAR HAZY CENTER… is right off of Regan Intl Airport. SO they quite literally flew the planes in.. and drove them to the hanger. Its one of the most BATSHIT crazy awesome places to go.


  12. The Tristar and DC-10 both tried to fill a market that was only big enough to support one aircraft profitably. You can build a great airplane and still lose money if you can’t get beyond the break even sales point. Splitting sales with the cheaper DC-10 and the rise of wide body twinjets spelled doom for L-1011. Obviously Lockheed did themselves no favors by getting caught handing out bribes to drive sales, which was the same strategy they used to inflict the Starfighter on many Western air forces.

  13. The L-1011 is kind of proof that flight crew and passenger opinions aren’t really all *that* important when it comes to purchasing decisions, because, if they were, Lockheed would have had no trouble selling every one they could build. I’ve never heard a TriStar pilot say “damn, I hated that plane, I’m glad it was retired” or a former passenger say “I always hated being booked on an L1011, thank God everyone had the good sense to switch to 737s on every route”, the general consensus is that these were pretty much the Cadillac of airliners back in the day (like back in the day when Cadillac was the Lexus of luxury cars)

  14. I was in the Army and was being stationed in Germany. We flew this plane from Charlotte SC to Reykjavík Iceland. We refueled there and then flew on to Munich.

    The funniest part of the trip was that I sat in the smoking section. There was never a need to light up. As soon as that sign went off, everyone lit up…. The haze through the entire cabin was quick there was really no reason to light up. The smoke was everywhere. I even remember our flight attendant had a cigarette in her mouth. We all thought that was funny.

    A buddy and I took pictures with this plane on the ground in Iceland. Wish I could find those pictures….

    Way to bring back some memories Mercedes… very cool

  15. Noticing how the engines are mounted further out on the wing than with a DC-10 (and certainly any two-engine plane where thrust differential is more of an issue). I imagine that’s not an accident…Less stress on the wing box in flight, more dampening of flutter?

    As a kid I lived near Lockheed-Burbank where the project was a source of pride, controversy. At that time you might see a gleaming prototype L-1011 at one corner of the airport and a decrepit Constellation stored at the other.

  16. I registered on this site because of this article. I love that you are branching out to include other parts of engineering besides automotive! It was a great read, and thank you for bringing Mercedes over. I look forward to many other interesting articles.

  17. Great article mercedes!

    I never had the opportunity to fly on one, I have a friend who is a Mechanic for Delta and they used to call it the “tritanic”, also under that circle of lav’s was often corroded lol

  18. TWA ran a lot L1011s and as the child of an employee I rode a lot of them. I liked them better than 747s since most our trips were trans Atlantic.
    One distinctive feature on these was the doors. Instead of being hinged they rolled up on tracks like a military transport and the window was actually a prism to give a good view of the ground.

  19. I can remember flying on a DC10 many years ago, I thought it was a second rate rattle trap. I bet I’d have remembered this one in a more pleasant light.

    I may be biased, my dad worked for Lockheed in the mid 1980s, until Boeing hired him in 1988ish.

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