The "Tristar" is the popular nickname of the Lockheed L-1011 widebody trijet aircraft. It was the last passenger aircraft made by Lockheed, approaching nowhere near the success of the popular Lockheed Electra and Lockheed Constellation preceding it.


American Airlines wanted a 250-seat widebody aircraft that could be used on short and medium-range routes that didn't require the capacity of the Boeing 747. Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas both submitted bids in the competition: the two aircraft they came up with were the Tristar and the DC-10.

At first, Lockheed's aircraft appeared to be ahead in the very close race, slated for a rollout well ahead of the DC-10. Both planes were almost identical, differing only in the third tail-mounted engine. While the DC-10's engine was mounted on the fin itself, the Tristar's engine was mounted inside the back of the fuselage, and used an S-shaped duct to bring air in from a large intake at the fin's base (similar to a Boeing 727).

     ___                 ___
    /   |               /   |
 __/____|_             /    |
|________/::::    ____/     |
_/______|__     _|_______   |__
          /                   /::::
   DC10               L1011

Then, Rolls-Royce, which was developing the Tristar's turbofan engines, suddenly went bankrupt. With its engine manufacturer out of business, Lockheed was forced to delay the release of the Tristar while they worked on trying to adapt another engine to the airframe. Rolls-Royce was soon bailed out by the British government, which saved the Tristar program, but pushed back its first flight to November of 1970, a full three months behind the DC-10. American ended up buying from McDonnell Douglas, but the Tristar stayed in production until 1984, and 250 were eventually built.


The first model of the Tristar, the L-1011-1, lost ground to the DC-10 because of its relatively short operating range: just over 5,000 km. All Nippon Airways and Cathay Pacific Airways used these aircraft for high-density routes in the Pacific Rim: Air Canada and Eastern Airlines were also major customers of this type. Nowadays, you can find these flying for Orient Thai and Tradewinds Airlines.

Its first major upgrade, the L-1011-100 of 1975, featured a new center fuel tank that increased the aircraft's range by nearly 1,500 km: Trans World Airlines and British Caledonian bought many of these, and a few are still flown by Air Transat and American Trans Air.

The L-1011-200 model of 1976 advanced the 100 model further with upgraded Rolls-Royce engines that improved its performance in hot and high-altitude conditions: Gulf Air used 200 models to replace its aging Vickers VC-10 fleet. Only five are still flying today.

The range gap with the higher model DC-10's wasn't evened out until 1978, when the shortened L-1011-500 model was introduced. British Airways and Delta picked up many of these aircraft for transatlantic flights, and a handful still fly for ATA and Transat.

       Model:     1     100    200    250    500
Passengers       362    362    362    362    315
Fuel (kg)      72360  80905  80905  96885  96885
Wingspan (m)   47.35  47.35  47.35  47.35  50.09
Fuselage (m)   54.15  54.15  54.15  54.15  50.24
Thrust (kg)    19050  19050  22680  22680  22680
Range (km)      5320   6780   6820   8380   9750
Speed (kph)      965    955    980    970    970

Major Crashes

Compared to the DC-10, the Tristar has a relatively clean safety record: a total of six fatal crashes, none of them involving problems with the aircraft design itself.

The first and most famous L-1011 crash was Eastern Airlines flight 401, which went down on approach to Miami International Airport in 1972. The crash itself, caused by pilot error while trying to diagnose a problem with the undercarriage, became famous after Eastern employees started to see ghosts of the flight crew around artifacts of the crash. This was later made into a TV movie in 1978 called The Ghosts of Flight 401, starring Ernest Borgnine and Kim Basinger.

The Tristar's Fate

All of the majors that purchased the Tristar have since replaced it with newer, more efficient twinjet aircraft such as the Boeing 767 and Airbus A300. Most of the Tristars still in passenger service are flown by smaller airlines. The Royal Air Force uses modified Tristars, as does the government of Saudi Arabia: others are in storage awaiting buyers or lessors. For those wishing to start new airlines, the Tristar is attractive as a cheap and simple widebody aircraft with an excellent service record.

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