The 1960’s were a fascinating time for civil aviation. Full of incredible stories like the story of how Lockheed, an aerospace company known for its military aircraft, set out to build the world’s most advanced airliner. And that’s exactly what they did. Passengers loved it’s spacious cabin and smooth, quiet ride. Pilots boasted about its handling, power, and ergonomics. Nearly 50 years ago, this aircraft could fly itself from takeoff to landing without any of the pilots touching the controls.
But this is also the same aircraft that nearly bankrupt the company that built it. Generating billions of dollars in losses and guaranteeing that Lockheed would never try to build another
airliner. When launched the L-1011 TriStar was the most technologically advanced commercial airliner ever. Making leaps forward in efficiency, comfort, and safety. The TriStar introduced innovations that should have made it a commercial success. This aircraft should have helped Lockheed leapfrog ahead of its competition. The Tristar featured a highly advanced autopilot system. It could land the plane at certain airports in completely blind, zero visibility weather, when other planes of the era, well they would need to divert to other airports. And its degree of system redundancy earned the L-1011 an excellent reputation for safety. Lockheed even put extra effort into the TriStar’s cabin. It wasn’t your typical cramped cattle car. It was different. It was sleek and spacious, nothing like its competitors. This was, by just about any measure, a superior aircraft. It was ahead of its time.
But how did such a highly-revered aircraft like the L-1011 turn out to be such a huge financial failure? To answer that question, you have to go back to 1966. You could say it began with a man named Frank Kolk, one of the head honchos at American Airlines. American was in the market for a new type of aircraft. At the time there was a lot of excitement over Boeing 747, a large, efficient wide-body promising to be lucrative for Airlines. But Kolk worried about American’s ability to fill seats on something as large as a that carried less passengers (around 250) but with the efficiency of a second-generation wide-body airliner. So Kolk put the word out to rival aircraft manufacturers. Boeing had enough on their plate they were busy raking it in with their 747 and 737 programs. But Douglas and Lockheed were interested. Kolk initially wanted a twin-engine jet, but the Federal Aviation Administration 60-minute rule would prove to be a challenge.
The 60-minute rule meant that any twin-engine civil aircraft could only fly as far as 60 minutes from an airport should it need to divert in an emergency. Not so practical for airlines that wanted to fly across oceans. But a 3 engine tri-jet configuration could get around the 60 minute rule, yet still be more efficient than the 4 engine jets that were crossing oceans at the time.
Douglas, which was in the process of merging with McDonnell Aircraft, had a history of building successful jet-powered airliners. They wanted to keep development costs low, so their approach was to use technologies and systems which they had already developed. Lockheed on the other hand, had never built a jet-powered airliner and their last commercial aircraft, the turboprop driven Electra, well it was kind of a disaster. Plagued by early accidents and poor sales. Lockheed had something to prove, so they would set out to build an advanced airliner to make rival
McDonnell Douglas’s entry look like yesterday’s news. After all, this was the company that had just finished building the SR-71 Blackbird.
So, surely they could handle designing an airliner. Lockheed’s design called for a center-mounted engine to receive air through a curving S-duct. The problem was, there wasn’t an engine in production short enough to fit the installation. And the only engine manufacturer to have anything on the drawing board that would fit, was Rolls-Royce. But what they had looked promising. A lighter more efficient engine that would give the L-1011 an advantage. But here’s the thing, someone at Rolls Royce must have been one hell of a smooth talker, because Rolls Royce was about to seriously over promise and under deliver.
Even before Rolls-Royce’s engine would fail the bird-strike test, shattering its innovative Hyfill fanstage to pieces, it had been struggling. After years of work, it still couldn’t meet the
performance requirements that it had promised Lockheed. And the financial situation at Rolls-Royce was a mess. In 1971, it was forced to declare bankruptcy. And Rolls pointed the finger squarely at the L-1011 program. But things were also looking bad on Lockheed’s end. Its own financial situation by now had deteriorated. It struggled with cost overruns and other defense project cancellations. And a Rolls-Royce bankruptcy would mean no engine for the L-1011.
Finding an alternative would mean massive delays that Lockheed was in no position to ride out. But you can’t get any more British than Rolls-Royce, and the Government wasn’t about to let a company of such national importance just disappear. So, the British government nationalized the company and worked with the Americans to guarantee bank loans for Lockheed, so that there would be an L-1011 to purchase those Rolls-Royce engines. And this allowed Rolls-Royce to sort out their engineering issues. And they ended up with a fantastic engine. But for Lockheed, there was always an elephant in the room.
See, even before the whole engine debacle, American Airlines had decided to go with the rival DC-10. McDonnell Douglas was a proven manufacturer with a track record in civil aviation. Lockheed on the other hand was the new player. While the L-1011 would pick up early sales from the large Airlines, its sales would always lag behind the DC-10, even as the DC-10 started blowing out its cargo doors and sprinkling the Midwest with engine parts. But the big problem was that these aircraft were two big fish sharing a little pond. There wasn’t a big enough market to support two wide-body tri-jets and sales of both suffered for it.
And by the late 1970’s and early 80’s, a new kind of aircraft had entered the market. The efficient wide-body twin-jet that Frank Kolk had always really wanted. Newly formed Airbus had introduced the A300, taking a big chunk out of both L-1011 and DC-10 tri-jet sales. Lockheed would only ever sell half the TriStars it would need just to break even, and it was eventually forced to shut down production in 1984. The TriStar certainly wasn’t perfect. No machine is. Some claim it was over-engineered, making it a bit of a maintenance hog. But it was the most advanced airliner of its day. The Tristar would earn a fantastic safety record and it was loved by pilots and passengers alike.
But it couldn’t get past its rocky start and the realities of an overcrowded and quickly changing market. The L-1011 was a technological marvel, but by Lockheed’s own admission, a financial failure. And that goes to show you that great design, engineering, and business go hand in hand.