While 2014 may have been the end of commercial DC-10 services, many forget that the RAF (Royal Air Force) has been operating Lockheed L1011s (called “TriStars” in their parlance) as air-to-air refueling aircraft. Unfortunately for trijet enthusiasts, today marks the end of their service in the RAF. Even worse, they will be broken up in Bruntingthorpe.
As the resident Trijet Enthusiast – I was hoping for a little more notice from the RAF as to when the last RAF Tristar flight would happen. Thankfully, we have someone else who will be able to take the last flight and produce a fine report for AirlineReporter. As we await that final dispatch, let’s take a look back at the L1011 – an historical aircraft that even could have changed the pace of the Cold War.
Much like the DC-10 (sans military involvement) the L1011 started with a request from American Airlines for a widebody airliner smaller than a 747 that had similar, if not identical, range. The L1011, unlike its competitors, was a much more optimized design. Though mechanics and engineers disliked an engine being hidden in an S-duct in the aft fuselage behind the pressure bulkhead, it was more aerodynamically efficient. The aircraft was one of the first to feature a truly independent autoland system (it was, indeed, the first aircraft the FAA certified for Cat-III-C autolandings), even automated descent control. This aircraft was on the bleeding edge of technology. So advanced, in fact, that the original and long-term goals of the L1011 were to manufacture it as a “jumbo twin”.
Unfortunately, its Rolls Royce RB211 engines were also ground breaking. Though Rolls Royce had been working on their signature triple-spool turbofan since 1965, this was the first aircraft to feature it. For around $533,000 (U.S.) per engine, Rolls Royce was offering unheard of efficiency and thrust, as well as lighter and stronger composite fan-blades.
Unfortunately, the composite fan-blades led to massive delays with the engine. If that was not enough, a foreign exchange issue that involved Lockheed revenue sharing on the project sent Rolls Royce into bankruptcy. Clearly, they recovered, as the RB211 became one of the most successful turbofan engines, as well as industrial generators. It did, however, delay the L1011 by two years (unheard of in those times).
When the first L1011-1 flew on November 17, 1970 (from the Palmdale facility), it was pretty much flawless. Despite Lockheed’s troubles over the years, they designed an amazing plane. Unfortunately, an amazing plane came at an amazing sticker price. Airlines could get a 747 for slightly more, or a DC-10 for a good deal less. Also, Lockheed rather misread the market and was too slow in offering a high gross-weight long-range version of the L1011 to compete with the DC-10-30. Compared to 446 DC-10s, only 250 L1011s were ever made.
Eastern Air Lines was one of the most prolific operators of the type (and was a launch customer, along with TWA). Unfortunately for them, they were also the first to lose one of the type shortly after its introduction into service. Unlike the DC-10 accidents of the same era, Eastern Flight 401 was a fault of ambiguous electronics/human error. Nothing that would tarnish the type’s overall perception with consumers or earn it any onerous nicknames.
The L1011 was designed with so much redundancy that there are even some bright sparks in its relatively small history of incidents and accidents. In the case of Eastern 935, the quadruple-redundant hydraulic system allowed all passengers to walk off the aircraft with nothing more than a few new grey hairs.
The L1011 was an aircraft that was a bright point in an era of challenging reliability issues. I am sure I can find numerous A&P mechanics that will bitterly complain about some aspect (such as using a unique type of self-locking screw). Despite that, the service record was impressive. The L1011 was an aircraft of firsts and great engineering – it was merely a victim of product positioning and Rolls Royce.
To maximize space, airlines tried to utilize “below deck” areas of the L1011. Of course neither PSA nor Court Lines ever really managed to make lower-lobe lounges and air stairs work, but they were an interesting marketing idea that only was ever tested on the L1011 in the west. The lower-lobe galleys were a little more popular, unfortunately. Flight attendants were not a fan of being stuck down below during meal preparation. Regardless, the late 1960’s was a time of rapid innovation and Lockheed was clearly game to try anything to sell a flagging aircraft.
Those of us on the west coast probably encountered more L1011s based out of Delta’s long-gone Portland hub. The only L1011 I ever got to fly on was from Calgary to Toronto with Air Transat. Air Canada had already phased theirs out by the time I became a serious plane nerd, and even then, they never came west of Toronto.
Most of them retired from commercial service in the early part of the last decade. The RAF, however, acquired their first L1011s in 1984; all of them second hand.
All the RAF TriStars were of the -500 variant. Fourteen feet shorter than the L-1011-1, it also was capable of carrying 8000 gallons more fuel. The nine aircraft came from British Airways and Pan American World Airlines. The TriStars entered service two years after Operation Black Buck, which is a shame as they would have made a huge difference.
In service with the RAF the TriStar was used not only as a tanker, but transport, and even medical evacuation aircraft. They have been part of every NATO and coalition action since the Gulf War, up to and including Odyssey Dawn. In service with N0.216 Squadron, they will be replaced by Airbus A330-based Voyagers. The Voyagers will be based out of RAF Brize Norton, like the Tristars before them.
I am aware that the Las Vegas Sands Corporation has two L1011s, but they are listed as stored- and one of them is at Don Muang Airport in Bangkok- rumored to have been damaged in the flooding a few years ago. It is highly unlikely they will take to the air again- but if they do, hopefully someone will sell seats!