The Lockheed L1011 Tristar

The three Rolls-Royce RB211-22B engines with which the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar was equipped made it a formidable sight back in the 1970s but sadly, only 250 of the aircraft were built between 1970 and 1983. This can not take away the fact that the L-1011 TriStar was a great success in airline passenger service over a great many years. A reliant and efficient platform for commercial carriers (such as British Airways, Pan Am, Delta and TWA) and governments alike (the UK acquired the aircraft for military use). However this week, some 44 years since the very first Lockheed L-1011 TriStar actually flew, the Royal Air Force will bid a final farewell to an aircraft that has provided superb transport and tanker re-fueling services since it first entered service with 216 Squadron back in 1984.

The RAF acquired a total of nine used L-1011 TriStar aircraft primarily to supplement its air-to-air tanker re-fueling and transport responsibilities; six of these aircraft were purchased from BA, three from Pan Am. Converted for military use by Marshalls of Cambridge and supported by that company throughout their RAF service, the withdrawal of TriStar comes close on the heels of the retirement last year of the superb Vickers VC10. The dawn of a new era is in the offing, as these workhorses of the last generation are replaced by a more modern and capable equivalent –  Airbus’ Voyager aircraft.

The history of the Lockheed TriStar development is one that I suspect many old Lockheed and Rolls-Royce hands would care to forget. Against a background of intense competition between airlines and also between aircraft and engine manufacturers Rolls-Royce was to design a completely new aircraft engine that would be known as the RB.211. Also aimed at other US commercial aircraft manufacturers such as McDonnell Douglas for its planned DC-10 aircraft development it would be on the L-1011 TriStar that the RB.211 would make its name. Lockheed had itself been out of large commercial aircraft manufacturing for some time and the announcement in 1967 that it would develop, what it then rather ironically called an airbus, marked a return to the industry. With several other competitor aircraft developments occurring simultaneously, timing was crucial. To that end Lockheed announced an in-service target date for the L-1011 of 1972. Thrust was crucial and both McDonnell Douglas and Lockheed pressed for increasing levels of thrust. Rolls-Royce was pitted against both GE and Pratt & Whitney and to make matters even worse it is worth recalling that with aircraft priced in dollars, as they still are today, Rolls-Royce was seriously disadvantaged at least until the pound sterling was devalued in 1967 from $2.80 to $2.40.

Having been forced into serious price discounting and protectionist measures, Rolls-Royce was forced into a long period of waiting whilst the politics of which of either the DC10 or TriStar the various large US airlines would acquire. Lockheed really needed three launch customers but in the end settled for two – Trans World (TWA) and Eastern Airlines. The initial order to Rolls-Royce was for 150 ship sets of the RB211-22 and it was confirmed to Rolls-Royce by letter on the 29th March 1968. Three days later an ecstatic Minister of Technology, Anthony Wedgewood-Benn announced the order to the House of Commons. Subsequently Rolls-Royce felt that it could not support two aircraft manufacturing programmes and dropped away from the potential of providing the RB211 for the DC10.

The details of what was to follow over the next three years in the troubled history of the RB211 engine development come not only from my own memory but are very well described in the second volume of Peter Pugh’s excellent biography of Rolls-Royce ‘The Magic of A Name’. I have read all three of these great tomes and I am grateful to have learned further significant detail through reading this company biography.

I suspect that with hindsight it may be true to say that at the time of the RB.211 development that Rolls-Royce was poorly structured from a design-engineering point of view; it quickly found itself short of specific RB.211 design experience. RB.211 engine development problems manifested themselves due to various seizures during test and evaluation programmes. The use of composite blade technology – then known as ‘Hyfil’ – created problems via bird strikes; requiring a redesign to replace its use with Titanium. Engineering change followed engineering change, performance deficiencies in the turbines, combustion chamber problems, weight, overheating, high fuel consumption, vibrations, rising development costs and shortage of cash added to Rolls-Royce problems.

Worse perhaps for Rolls-Royce was that the decision by McDonnell Douglas to go ahead with the DC10 development using GE engines was bound to reduce the ultimate level of TriStar aircraft demanded. Senior management at Rolls-Royce were by late 1969 fully aware that even if they could complete the development schedule they would make a loss on every RB.211 built. By September 1970 according to Peter Pugh research and development expenditure had increased from a predicted £89.3m to £170m – in today’s terms that is from about £1.3bn to £2.6bn. The shortage of, and the increasing requirement for, cash could not be self-funded and the threat of potential damages for delays alleged to have been caused to the programme by Lockheed could not be ignored.

The British Government which had first become involved in 1970 was, according to Pugh, concerned about an open-ended commitment of unknown liabilities for damages. While Rolls-Royce’s liabilities could not be easily quantified at the time, the Heath Government concluded that it would not be a responsible use of public funds to assume a very large un-quantifiable commitment either by supporting the company with funds which it had no prospect of repaying, or by the Government taking the company over and making itself responsible for all its debts and obligations. The inevitable consequence of this was that Rolls-Royce went into receivership on the 4th February 1971.

Although TriStar was not a commercial success, it has been a reliable service workhorse; its quiet and efficient engines made it the envy of many engine manufacturers. Such was the vast change that the RB.211 offered in terms of technological progress, subsequent development of Trent engines is still proving successful today.

As to the RAF’s TriStars, my understanding is that they will not all be heading off to museums just yet – some examples could actually be sold for further service. I am not sure how this might work in practice as those that remain at Brize Norton are on the military as opposed to civilian aircraft register.

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
Tel: +44 7710 779785

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