The L-1011 TriStar first flew November 1970 and was Lockheed’s brief foray into the passenger-jet market. The defense contractor was eager to reenter civilian aviation by leveraging its successes designing and building military transport planes powered by high-bypass turbofans (the C-141 StarLifter and C-5 Galaxy). Contemporary passenger jets, such as Douglas’s DC-8, were turbojet powered, engines better tuned to supersonic fighters than efficient people-moving air ships.
Boeing, locked out of the military transport plane market, privately developed the 747—the Queen of the Skies. The plane with the hump is iconic, and with four engines in a different class than the trijets discussed here. Still, the last of the iconic air frames just rolled off Boeing’s production lines in 2023.
Lockheed engineered impressive new technology into the L-1011, including an autopilot that could land in zero-visibility weather. Unfortunately, Lockheed’s plane entered a market (maximum possible distance for 400 passengers) already targeted by Douglas with its DC-10, which took a cheapest-possible-design approach incorporating the DC-8’s legacy technology. DC-10s are readily identified by their inelegant “straight-through” tail-mounted third engine, instead of routing this engine’s air intake through a so-called S duct for increased efficiency, accessibility, and performance.
Douglas, however, offered both GE and Pratt & Whitney engines. With its more complicated ducted engine-air feed, Lockheed wedded itself exclusively to Rolls Royce engines, whose technology limited airplane range, which required extensive work to extend. GE added key capability to its engines first, and the DC-10 became the first trijet to go “intercontinental.” The Lockheed TriStar’s order book died, plans to expand the platform to other passenger jets were killed, and Lockheed ceded the trijet market to the now-McDonnell Douglas, which was promptly bought by Boeing.
This “new” Boeing upgraded many DC-10s to so-called MD-10s, with glass cockpits, obviating the flight engineer and solidifying the modern cockpit crew at two. Not long after, trijets were replaced by large twinjets—Boeing 767 and 777, Airbus A330 and A340. The first of these twinjets was killed by Boeing decades ago and yet is still the workhorse of Delta’s close-in international fleet with no obvious plan for replacement.
Why retell this story?
(1) Lockheed targeted the wrong market, and that included improperly sizing the market for its near-term planes. Here’s a hint: an international market of six hundred aircraft total is too low. Also, a bird in the hand isn’t vaporware; more orders may come by adding an engine, range, and passengers, but don’t base go-forward decisions on unhatched orders, to mix many metaphors.
(2) Sometimes partnership decisions don’t work out. Lockheed came from DOD, where the award decision (1) is made long before the project sees extensive delays/cost overruns and (2) obliterates the competition. In commercial aviation, airlines choose from multiple real options. Lockheed placed all of its eggs in Rolls Royce’s basket, then watched in horror from the sidelines as its partner let them spoil. A rapid response (or backup plan) might have saved the program.
(3) Lockheed didn’t want to play the commercial game. See #2, above. Commercial airplane purchase negotiations are messy and, when deemed required by negotiators, nasty (for example, Boeing’s attempting to block one of its own major customers, Delta, from buying what became the Airbus A220). The aviation market is heavily cyclical and complicated (eg, limited airport capacity, ever-changing short- and long-term demand), and plane makers risk failing to recover development costs when they misjudge. That requires strong, sustained commitment. Lockheed took its ball (and three engines) and went back to DOD.