How the Last Star was Born - Part 1
This week marked the 40th anniversary of the first flight of the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar (hat tip to Max Kingsley-Jones).
The TriStar was the last in a long line of Lockheed commercial aircraft, including geat names like the Electra and Constellation, and the last new Lockheed aircraft (I think) to have a star-themed name. Many know about the about the headlines behind the L-1011: the sales battles with the DC-10 which hurt both companies and of course the infamous engine development problems. But looking through the history of the TriStar’s development I was surprised at how great of a story it is, one I felt compelled to re-tell. The story of how the L-1011 came to be is really one of two halves, of early optimism and hope, and of later despair as trouble catches up with the program. I'll try to cover the former in this post, with the later in a follow-on post.
Note: A lot of the information I got on the TriStar story came from a book I found in a second-hand book store a few years ago: L-1011 TriStar and the Lockheed Story by Douglas J. Ingells (Aero Publishers, 1973). It’s a real gem of a book, written not long after the L-1011 entered service. It’s a cheerful, optimistic mix of the history of Lockheed in general, and something of an official record of the L-1011’s development. The book isn’t terribly technical, but it does tell an interesting narrative of how the TriStar came to be. I also go some good information from Flight's archives, a source so vast I couldn't possibly take everything in, but this article offers some great additional reading.
Part 1: The Optimism Bit
In the summer of 1965, Lockheed was working on proposals for the US SST program, the US Air Force C-5 program, and the Navy long-range patrol plane program.
During early design studies for the Navy program (which would end up simply as the upgraded P-3C), Lockheed engineers in Burbank, California looked at a number of two, three and four-engine concepts. One of the twin-engine designs looked very promising to the engineers, but the Navy was too reluctant to accept a twin-engine aircraft for the long range maritime patrol mission.
Lockheed engineers felt this design had so much promise however that they continued to develop the twin-engine concept on the side as a potential commercial aircraft with an enlarged fuselage. What emerged from the conceptual studies was a high wing, twin turbofan powered passenger aircraft with an oval fuselage that was wider than it was high. The cabin could accommodate up to 250 passengers in a twin-aisle configuration.
Work on the P-3C project had to take priority however, so the “little big twin” design went no further, and the drawings were stored away.
Around six months later in the spring of 1966, Rudy Thoren, Lockheed’s Chief Engineer at Burbank, met with his counterpart at American Airlines, Frank Kolk, to discuss a new airliner requirement. American wanted an efficient, widebody plane to operate as a “shuttle bus” between New York and Chicago. This big stipulation was that the aircraft had to be able to operate out of New York’s LaGuardia airport, where American had invested a lot of money. LaGuardia’s runway was only rated to carry aircraft up to 270,000lb because it was built on top of piers out into the harbor. Lockheed’s Bill Hannon, who would later become the Chief Engineer for the L-1011 program, was at the meeting. He recalled the “big little twin” design his team had come up with on the P-3C program, and showed the drawings to an excited Kolk. On his trip, Kolk also paid a visit to Douglas at nearby Long Beach to talk with them about the same set of requirements. Looking back, this is when the trijet race quietly began.
The aircraft was often referred to by the generic term “airbus” (not capitalized) since this is how airlines such as American thought they would operate this type of plane, on high traffic shuttle routes. At the same time, it was known that European aerospace firms were starting their own airbus project. Lockheed believed it “had to catch the bus, or miss it”.
Serious work began on Lockheed’s airbus project in the summer of ‘66. On December 31st of the year, it was announced that Boeing’s model 2707 had won out over Lockheed’s L-2000 for the US supersonic transport project. Although a setback for the company, it provided a “shot in the arm” for the airbus project since Lockheed could now commit significantly more resources and manpower to it.
Lockheed also began canvassing other airlines about the requirements of their concept airliner. Eastern Air Lines liked the size but was notably concerned about operating a twin-engine airliner on it’s over water Caribbean routes. Eastern also wanted to double the range of the original American, again for Caribbean routes. TWA wasn’t keen on the idea of two engines either, due to its routes across the Rockies, and also wanted the additional range for transcontinental flights.
As a result, Lockheed’s original shuttle bus concept started to grow. This growth made a twin configuration less practical since the engine power requirements were already pushing the technology of the day. In the spring of 1967, after many design studies of twinjets and trijets concepts, the trijet won out.
In June of ’67, the airbus project became known as the L-1011-365, because it has a maximum take-off weight of 365,000 lbs. As design work continued, the L-1011 gross weight grew to 385,000 lbs to meet route flexibility requirements of airlines (but it could still meet American’s LaGuardia to Chicago requirement with a lightened fuel load). The aircraft got the official designation L-1011-385-1 “TriStar”, in keeping with Lockheed's stellar-based naming practice. (The 385 portion was often dropped in commercial references, but remained part of the FAA designation.)
Lockheed began formally proposing the TriStar to airlines in September of ’67, including a price and two engine options (the Rolls-Royce RB.211 and the General Electric CF6). The dash 385 was larger than what American ideally wanted, but would go along with it if that was what other airlines insisted on having; Eastern and TWA were both very interested in the dash 385. Lockheed hosted two airline specification standardization meetings in October and December ’67 to get into all the nitty gritty details of the airlines wanted from the plane.
Up until they began formally offering the TriStar, Lockheed thought they were ahead of the competition in their airbus development. However, Douglas had accelerated its own trijet project (to the same American Airlines request) and had essentially caught up to Lockheed. Douglas and Lockheed salesmen would even bump into each other at airline offices as they raced to sell their trijets.
In February 1968, American announced that it would order the DC-10, after Douglas presented them with a better commercial proposal than Lockheed. After that blow, Lockheed’s chairman, Dan Haughton, said “we’re really going to get into this commercial business, or get out of it. So if we’re going to get into it, we better get all the way in.” Lockheed started by cutting the price of the L-1011 to even less than what American had paid for the DC-10.
With the American order lost, Lockheed actually had an opportunity to grow the TriStar’s gross weight even further to satisfy Eastern and TWA’s longer range requirements. The maximum take-off weight grew to 410,000lb (though the -385 designation remained the same), requiring engines rated for 40,600lb of thrust.
Things began to look up for Lockheed, and in March of ’68, Dan Haughton announced deal for 144 TriStars from Eastern, TWA and Air Holdings Ltd, a British firm that would market the plane internationally. Lockheed also announced the aircraft would be fitted with the Rolls-Royce RB.211 engine. These orders were followed up a few days later by Delta Air Lines and Northeast Airlines for 28 more aircraft, bringing the total sales to $2.58 billion.
The big hold out was United Airlines, which had not yet decided which airbus to buy – the L-1011 or the DC-10. Although United liked both planes, it felt the DC-10 was a little too small since it was still sized to the tastes of American Airlines. United told Douglas that if they could convince American to accept a larger gross weight for the DC-10 that would be comparable to the L-1011, then United could evaluate both planes on an even basis. Douglas successfully convinced American to go for the larger plane, and the DC-10 grew to match the TriStar.
United ended up choosing the new DC-10 offering. George Keck, president of United, actually called Lockheed’s Dan Haughton to explain why they chose the DC-10. United had a long relationship with Douglas and knew the company well. More importantly however, Keck believed that if they didn’t buy the DC-10, Douglas would drop the project, and maybe even leave the commercial jet business altogether, and that would not be good for Douglas or United.
Although the initial order battle had been fought, there was plenty more sales battle to be won and lost across the world. In order to ensure long-term sales success, Dan Haughton was determined that the L-1011 would be the most advanced jetliner in the world. It might have worked too, but deep trouble lay ahead for the L-1011 which would hinder the success of the entire program.