How the Last Star was Born - Part 2
This is the second part of my look back at the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar.
Note: As with the previous post, I found Douglas J. Ingells’ book L-1011 TriStar and the Lockheed Story, an invaluable piece of information. In addition, Bill Gunston’s excellent book The Development of Jet and Turbine Aero Engines had some interesting information on the RB.211. Not least of course, Flight’s archives provided a huge amount of information and accounts of the events described below. I’ve tried to stick to the sources as much as possible, but if anyone notices any errors or glaring omissions, please feel free to comment accordingly.
Part 2: The Unraveling
In Bill Hannan’s opinion, then Chief Engineer for the L-1011 program, any of the big three engine makers, General Electric, Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce, were capable of providing the engine for the L-1011.
Besides needing a large and fuel efficient engine, Lockheed also wanted a very quiet engine. Compared with the Boeing 747 and C-5 Galaxy, Lockheed’s "airbus" (non-capitalized) would be operating from smaller airports where noise restrictions were likely to be more stringent. Bill Hannan pushed for a 100dB limit, which was a similar noise footprint to the Lockheed Electra turboprop. In addition, Lockheed wanted all the engine’s systems to be modularized and mounted on the outer fan casing, not the core, for easy maintenance.
In 1967, when the engine choice came to the forefront, both GE and Pratt had high by-pass ratio engines already in the works. Pratt had developed the JT9D for the Boeing 747-100, but the design was essentially frozen and Pratt was reluctant to make any significant changes that would require new production tooling. As is, the JT9D was too powerful and too noisy for Lockheed’s airbus. GE was in a similar situation with the TF39 engine, which would power the C-5 Galaxy. GE didn’t want to make a lot of changes for the smaller airbus. (In the end, GE did provide an engine for the similarly sized DC-10, by clipping the length of the TF39 fan blades to create the CF6.)
At the same time, Rolls-Royce was working on a high by-pass ratio three-shaft technology demonstrator, but had no production high-BPR engines yet. Rolls looked to Lockheed’s new airbus as a platform to break into the high by-pass turbofan market. With no frozen design already in place, Rolls was willing to accommodate Lockheed’s requirements on power, noise and layout and essentially build them a tailor-made engine. Rolls was also willing to keep the price low to get onboard. This engine was to be the RB.211-22, and was largely developed in parallel with the L-1011 airframe. Lockheed and Rolls-Royce signed a fixed-price contract in March 1968 for the development and supply of the new turbofan engine. At the time, Rolls-Royce estimated that the RB.211 development costs would be £65-70 million.
The history of what became the RB.211 can be traced back to 1964, when Rolls-Royce had started a number of Advanced Technology Exercises. From these exercises, Rolls came up with a two shaft turbofan design known as the RB.178, rated for 27,000lbs of thrust. Market pressure for larger engines for planes like the 747 and C-5 was forcing the engine makers to go bigger however, and in 1965/66 the significantly larger RB.178-51 began to emerge. The dash 51 was a three shaft design capable of producing 45,000lbs of thrust and aimed specifically at the upcoming widebody airbus planes in the US and Europe. As Rolls continued developing the RB.178 through 1967 and ’68, three separate designs emerged: the smaller two shaft RB.203 for the Fairchild/Fokker F-228, the three shaft RB.207 for the British-French-German airbus (what became the actual Airbus A300), and the three shaft RB.211 for the Lockheed L-1011.
The reasoning behind the three-shaft design was improved efficiency and lower noise. Also, the three-shaft design was in many ways actually less complicated, needing 25% fewer parts for the same thrust rating. Besides the unique three-shaft layout, another pioneering feature of the RB.211 was the use of a new carbon fiber material called Hyfil for the fan blades. The advantages of Hyfil blades over traditional titanium blades were numerous. The Hyfil blades were cheaper to manufacture, were lighter and due to a lower aspect ratio, fewer of them were needed (only 24 compared with 33 titanium blades). This all culminated in a potential drop of another 1% drop in specific fuel consumption and weight savings of 300lb per engine from the Hyfil blades alone. Rolls was also developing a traditional titanium fan blade for the RB.211 in concurrence with the Hyfil blade as insurance in case the new material didn’t work out as planned.
The first RB.211 ran at Derby on Aug 31, 1968, with the initial engine rig testing phase proceeding well. The engine began flight testing on a modified VC-10 in March 1970. The RB.211 engine was mounted in place of the two port-side Conway engines, and it was fully integrated into the aircraft’s air, hydraulic and electrical systems. At this time there was still a lot of confidence in the progress of the engine program. In fact, Hyfil blades had already flown some 16,000 hrs in modified RR Conway engines fitted aboard some BOAC VC-10s.
Problems began to emerge during the spring of 1970 however, with a series of setbacks for the Hyfil fan blade design. Firstly, it was found that flying through very heavy rain and hail caused unexpected erosion of the Hyfil blades. This was first revealed during some of the Conway Hyfil testing, when some blades would exhibit partial de-lamination due to moisture penetration. RR attempted to correct the problem with by adding nickel plating to the leading edge and coating the blades in a polyurethane paint.
Then bird-strike testing on the RB.211 highlighted a lack of shear strength in the Hyfil blades, and steel laminations had to be inserted into the blades to improve the stress load paths. Then Rolls had to overcome fatigue and vibration problems resulting from the added steel laminations. As the problems with Hyfil mounted, it started to look like Rolls may have to revert to the titanium fan blade.
Still, reverting to the titanium blade cost Rolls-Royce additional time and money to bring the engine back on track, and eliminated a lot of the RB.211’s advantages in efficiency and weight. This was in addition to increases Rolls was experiencing in the cost of labor and materials. It was becoming apparent that Rolls-Royce had vastly underestimated the development costs of the new engine and may even be unable to deliver on the engine’s performance commitments.
At the end of 1970, Rolls-Royce brought Stanley Hooker, famed aero engine designer for both Rolls-Royce and Bristol-Siddley, back from retirement to help solve the RB.211 problems. What he found were mismatched shaft speeds, turbine efficiencies running 20% below target, and thrust outputs of as low as 34,200lb on some engines instead of the promised 42,000lb.
The results of Hooker’s work are impressive. One particular engine which had previously only produced 37,000lb with difficulty could then produce over 43,500lb with the improvements implemented by Hooker’s team.
However, just as the technical problems were being overcome, Rolls-Royce’s financial position was rapidly deteriorating. In February 1971, the company collapsed and went into receivership, having to be nationalized by the British government. I found the saga of the following six months best described by a chronology given in Douglas Ingells’ book:
February 2, 1971 – Lockheed team headed by Dan Haughton [Lockheed chairman] arrives in London for a joint program review with Rolls-Royce management on the status of the engines for the TriStar. They get first indication that British Government has withdrawn financial backing and Rolls-Royce is contemplating receivership.
February 4 – Rolls-Royce, citing losses on RB.211 engine development, requests appointment of a receiver and announces that it is not feasible for it to proceed with its RB.211 engine contract with Lockheed. The British Government states that it will acquire certain assets of Rolls-Royce but denies liability with respect to the RB.211 engine contract. Portions of Rolls-Royce are subsequently reorganized as a government-owned company – Rolls-Royce (1971) Ltd., with Lord Cole as chairman. Lockheed begins exploring various means of continuing the L-1011 program including the availability of U.S.-manufactured engines.
February 9 – Haughton meets with L-1011 customers in New York. The airlines express concern over the impact on delivery schedules caused by Rolls’ collapse. Lockheed proposes no single course of action other than it will continue to explore all possible options.
February 11 – The British Government announces interim financing to continue work on RB.211 engine, pending exploration of the possible continuation of the L-1011 program.
February 17 – Dan Haughton is back in London again for initial conferences with Rolls and British Government officials regarding British terms for restoring the engine program.
February 20 – After conferring with British Defence Secretary Lord Carrington and Minister of Aviation Supply Frederick Corfield, Haughton returns to the U.S. announcing he will resume talks with British Government representatives early in March, He meets U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Packard in Washington to give a status report on the engine situation and then, on March 2, is back in London again for meetings with British Government officials and Rolls-Royce management.
March 4 – British propose a plan for a joint Lockheed-British company to carry out the engine program; and an engine price increase; British government funding of an additional $144 million, and a requirement for Lockheed to arrange that the British government would be repaid its investments if Lockheed should fail to carry through with the L-1011 program. Lockheed informs the Government it cannot accept elements of the British offer. Haughton meets with L-1011 customers in New York and presents British proposals and results of Lockheed evaluation of the availability of alternate General Electric and Pratt & Whitney engines for the TriStar.
March 9 – Technical and financial representatives of customer airlines meet in Burbank for several days and receive detailed presentations from General Electric and Pratt & Whitney. They conduct comparative analyses of Rolls-Royce and U.S.-built engines.
March 13, 1971 – Haughton sends message to Lord Carrington reporting that he has presented the British proposals to L-1011 customers, the U.S. Government, and banks. He reports that the airlines also find the offer unacceptable and invites the British to present best offer for consideration by Lockheed and the airlines.
March 15 – Haughton and Lockheed president A. Carl Kotchian meet senior officials of L-1011 customers for status report discussions, and also present a status report to Secretary Packard, to U.S. Treasury Secretary Connally, and to Lockheed’s lending banks.
March 19 – A joint British Government/Rolls-Royce team headed by Sir William Nield, British Cabinet Secretary, begins meetings with Lockheed in Burbank. Talks move to Washington where parties meet with Treasury Secretary Connally and with British Ambassador Lord Cromer.
March 24 – Lord Carrington and Sir Peter Rawlinson, Attorney General, fly from London to join negotiations. Before returning to London the following evening, Lord Carrington receives Lockheed’s latest offer and meets with Secretary Connally.
March 30 – Sir William Nield receives directions from London after Lord Carrington briefs Prime Minister Heath and other cabinet ministers. Following a meeting of Haughton and Nield, a statement is issued regarding “positions conditionally agreed to” by Lockheed and the British Government. Lockheed briefs L-1011 customers individually regarding the conditional agreements.
April 8 & 14 – Lockheed meets with its lending banks to report on the conditional agreements, and L-1011 airline meetings for review and discussion of their positions. Those attending agree that significant progress has been made and to expedite the resolution of outstanding issues.
April 20 – Prime Minister Heath says the British Government will not proceed with the RB.211 without guarantees as to future of Lockheed. Six days later banks provide an additional $50,000,000 of loans to Lockheed, bringing total bank financing to $400,000,000. Lockheed is also pledged additional security.
April 27 – Treasury Secretary John Connally tells a Senate subcommittee that Lockheed will need a government loan guarantee.
May 5 – Eastern Air Lines signs a conditional agreement reaffirming its original purchase of 50 Lockheed L-1011 TriStars with Rolls-Royce RB.211 engines. The next day Secretary Connally announces that the U.S. Administration will support a government loan guarantee.
May 6 – Trans World Airlines announces conditions that must be satisfied for it to continue with L-1011. One of the conditions is a government loan guarantee.
May 11 – Lord Carrington tells Parliament that the British Government has formally committed $240 million to finance completion of the RB.211, and that Rolls-Royce and Lockheed have reached a conditional agreement subject to U.S. Government guarantee of additional Lockheed financing.
All through June and July, House and Senate Hearings dragged on. Lockheed had been forced to look to Washington as a last resort.
July 30 – House passes the loan guarantee bill with a $250 million ceiling, 192 to 189.
August 2 – Senate gives final congressional approval adopting the House bill, 49 to 48.
September 14 – A “summit meeting” is held at the Federal Reserve Bank in New York to finalize Lockheed’s expanded bank credit agreement made possible by the Emergency Loan Guarantee Act. Attending were representatives of Lockheed’s 24 lending banks, the Treasury and Emergency Loan Guarantee Board, airline customers, Rolls-Royce, and the British Government.
“The agreement gave us the opportunity to prevent the bankruptcy that had been threatening Lockheed ever since the Rolls-Royce receivership in February,” explained Dan Haughton. “It enabled Lockheed to continue the L-1011 “TriStar” program, and restore our corporate strength and position.”
The RB.211 program would bounce back, and in the end Rolls-Royce would deliver an excellent engine to Lockheed, which in some ways was performing even better than originally promised. But all those months of technical and financial turmoil certainly left a lingering impact on both companies, and the TriStar itself would never fully recover from them.
Although the first flight of the L-1011 was 40 years ago last week in November of 1970, the aircraft didn’t enter service with Eastern Air Lines until April 1972. This was 8 months after the DC-10 began service with American Airlines, in a race that Lockheed was originally winning. But this initial service entry delay wasn’t the main cause of the long-term demise of the L-1011 (in fact, the baseline L-1011-1 out sold the equivalent DC-10-10).
The financial situation at Rolls-Royce, even after the bailout, meant that higher thrust versions of the RB.211 were slow to be developed and brought to market. Without larger engines, Lockheed couldn’t offer longer range versions of the L-1011 to compete with Douglas. By the time the baseline DC-10-10 had entered service in August 1971, Douglas was already working on the dash 30 long range version with a maximum take-off weight of 572,000lb and larger 51,000lb CF6-50 engines. The DC-10-30 proved to be a very capable aircraft, and Lockheed would ultimately never quite match its payload/range performance.
Lockheed followed the TriStar dash 1 with the dash 100 which had an additional fuel tank, providing a range increase of around 900 miles. But without larger engines, the increase in maximum take-off weight wasn’t very significant (from 430,000lb to 466,000lb), so overall performance was still poor compared with the DC-10-30. Not until the introduction of the 50,000lb-rated RB.211-524 engine would Lockheed come close to the DC-10-30, with the shortened, long-range L-1011-500. By the time the dash 500 was launched in 1976 however, the damage had largely been done and Lockheed had lost out on many sales to the DC-10-30. With Douglas in a superior market position, the new European Airbus A300B coming into service, and the Boeing 767 on the horizon, Lockheed was getting squeezed out of the market and the TriStar’s days were numbered. Lockheed would announce the end of L-1011 production in 1981, with the 250th and last example coming off the Palmdale production line in 1984, and once again Lockheed had bowed out of the commercial airliner business.
Although the L-1011 never made the commercial impact that many hoped it would, I consider that it has unintentionally left a lasting indirect legacy on the commercial aviation industry today.
McDonnell Douglas may have “won” the battle of the trijets, but the DC-10 was likewise not a great financial success – the market was too small at that time for two such similar planes. Imagine what would have happened if the L-1011 and the DC-10 didn’t go head to head. If Lockheed had stayed out of the commercial airliner business in the 1960s, the DC-10 could have been a much stronger financial success and McDonnell Douglas could well have remained as an independent airframer to this day. On the flip side, if the DC-10 never came to pass, then it’s conceivable that Lockheed, on the strength of a more successful TriStar program, could have become a major player in the commercial business (consider how Airbus rose to parity with Boeing in only a generation).
And although conceived originally for domestic requirements, I would suggest that the airbus concept which L-1011 and the DC-10 pioneered, paved the way for international air travel as much as the Boeing 747 did. The availability of a smaller widebodies made a lot of secondary international routes more viable for airlines, and marked the beginning of what would become the international point-to-point air travel concept. At a time when ETOPS was not yet a reality, how many international city-pair connections would not have existed without the tri-jets?
Considering it takes a lot of blame for the TriStar’s ultimate demise, it is perhaps ironic that the Rolls-Royce RB.211 engine became a much greater success in its own right. The RB.211 became renowned for its reliability in service, and in addition to the L-1011, went on to power the Boeing 747, 757 and 767. Its legacy still lives on today in the form of the Trent engine family, the lead engine on the A380, 787 and A350.
The Lockheed L-1011 TriStar must surely now be in its final decade of service, but I hope that it will remain an important part of the history of commercial aviation for decades more to come.