In December 2013 (“Still Elegant After All These Years”) we discussed the retirement of the Vickers VC-10 by its final user, Britain’s Royal Air Force. Friend and reader Peter Jost, of Toulouse, France, has pointed out that the RAF recently (March 24) retired another type of aircraft, the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar, which it had used since the 1980s in both tanker and transport roles. While a few others remain in service elsewhere, primarily in charter and other ad hoc services, the RAF was the last user with both longevity with the type and a significant fleet.
The TriStar, like its direct competitor, the DC-10, resulted from a specification developed by American Airlines in the 1960s, for a twin-engine, 250-seat aircraft capable of operating at New York’s La Guardia airport, and with range sufficient to fly from Chicago to California. In essence, this was a higher-capacity replacement for the popular Boeing 727. A third engine was added to provide overwater capability, in response at least in part to Eastern Airlines’ desire to utilize the proposed aircraft on its routes to San Juan, Puerto Rico. And with improvements in engine technology, U.S. transcontinental range was possible.
Both Lockheed and competitor Douglas developed aircraft of similar size and planform, with a single engine under each wing, and the third mounted either in (L-1011) or above (DC-10) the rear of the aircraft. Both programs were launched in 1968, and soon gained significant orders, splitting the historic U.S. “Big Four” carriers, with Eastern and TWA ordering the Lockheed product, while American and United launched the DC-10. Delta also was an initial L-1011 customer, as were Air Canada and BEA (British European Airways); Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific would also become a significant customer, as would All Nippon Airways (ANA) of Japan.
Development of both types proceeded in parallel, with the expectation of entry into service in 1971. The DC-10 accomplished this, following simultaneous first deliveries to American and United. In the L-1011’s case, however, following a successful first flight in November 1970, engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce entered bankruptcy in February 1971, which resulted in a significant delay in the program, causing initial services to occur about a year after its competitor, in 1972. For a time there was significant concern about whether the program might be cancelled; Delta ordered a small group of DC-10s as a hedge against this, although these aircraft were later sold to United.
Once in operation, it became clear that the DC-10 benefitted from both its earlier entry into service, as well as the fact that the now McDonnell-Douglas product was also produced in a longer-range version suitable for intercontinental markets, with the DC-10-30 and -40 (a unique version with Pratt & Whitney engines; other DC-10s had GE powerplants) entering service beginning in 1972, almost simultaneously with the L-1011. A longer-range version of the TriStar, the -500 model, did appear eventually, entering service in 1979, but the battle with the DC-10 was all but lost at that point, and Lockheed announced in 1981 that it would discontinue production.
While there were significantly more DC-10s produced (386 airliners and 60 tanker aircraft for the U.S. Air Force) than the 250 TriStars that were built, the modest amount of the combined total for both suggests that the direct competition of the two types probably benefitted airline customers more than the airframe manufacturers. Robert Serling, in his book “Eagle: The Story of American Airlines” (page 395) sums this up succinctly:
"There was general industry agreement that only one wide-body trijet would survive the competition; splitting the market between the DC-10 and the L-1011, it was felt, would be damaging to both Lockheed and MCD."
Lockheed, once one of the dominant producers of civil airliners, has not returned to this line of business subsequently.
Reflecting its initial entry lag into the market, the L-1011 did not fare as well as its competitor in post-initial customer usage. Few TriStars were converted to freighters; this proved to be a strong market for older DC-10s. Both types succumbed to the superior economics of large twins in the medium-haul markets for which most L-1011s were intended initially. And while the RAF did its part on the military transport/tanker front, the KC-10 program was considerably larger.
So, another type with a historic name is about to pass into history. Well-liked by a number of its customers, and viewed as technologically advanced (the L-1011 was the first widebody to be certified by the U.S. FAA for CAT-IIIC autoland operations), overcoming its initial development/timing hurdles, as well as the lack of a long-range model eventually proved impossible to overcome in the marketplace.