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  • The 1960's were a fascinating time for

  • civil aviation. Full of incredible stories like the story of how Lockheed,

  • an aerospace company known for its military aircraft, set out to build the

  • world's most advanced airliner. And that's exactly what they did.

  • Passengers loved it's spacious cabin and smooth, quiet ride. Pilots boasted about

  • its handling, power, and ergonomics. Nearly 50 years ago, this aircraft could fly

  • itself from takeoff to landing without any of the pilots touching the controls.

  • But this is also the same aircraft that nearly bankrupt the company that built

  • it. Generating billions of dollars in losses and guaranteeing that Lockheed

  • would never try to build another airliner.

  • When launched the L-1011 TriStar was the most technologically advanced commercial

  • airliner ever. Making leaps forward in efficiency, comfort, and safety. The

  • TriStar introduced innovations that should have made it a commercial success.

  • This aircraft should have helped Lockheed leapfrog ahead of its

  • competition. The Tristar featured a highly advanced autopilot system. It

  • could land the plane at certain airports in completely blind, zero visibility

  • weather, when other planes of the era, well they would need to divert to other

  • airports. And its degree of system redundancy earned the L-1011 an

  • excellent reputation for safety. Lockheed even put extra effort into the TriStar's

  • cabin. It wasn't your typical cramped cattle car. It was different. It was sleek

  • and spacious, nothing like its competitors. This was, by

  • just about any measure, a superior aircraft. It was ahead of its time. But

  • how did such a highly-revered aircraft like the L-1011 turn out to be such a

  • huge financial failure? To answer that question, you have to go back to 1966. You

  • could say it began with a man named Frank Kolk, one of the head honchos at

  • American Airlines. American was in the market for a new type of aircraft. At the

  • time there was a lot of excitement over Boeing 747, a large, efficient wide-body

  • promising to be lucrative for Airlines. But Kolk worried about American's ability

  • to fill seats on something as large as a 747. What he really needed was something

  • that carried less passengers (around 250) but with the efficiency of a

  • second-generation wide-body airliner. So Kolk put the word out to rival aircraft

  • manufacturers. Boeing had enough on their plate

  • they were busy raking it in with their 747 and 737 programs. But Douglas and

  • Lockheed were interested. Kolk initially wanted a twin-engine jet, but the

  • Federal Aviation Administration 60-minute rule would prove to be a

  • challenge. The 60-minute rule meant that any twin-engine civil aircraft could

  • only fly as far as 60 minutes from an airport should it need to divert in an

  • emergency. Not so practical for airlines that wanted to fly across oceans. But a 3

  • engine tri-jet configuration could get around the 60 minute rule, yet still be

  • more efficient than the 4 engine jets that were crossing oceans at the time.

  • Douglas, which was in the process of merging with McDonnell Aircraft, had a

  • history of building successful jet-powered airliners. They wanted to

  • keep development costs low, so their approach was to use technologies and

  • systems which they had already developed. Lockheed on the other hand, had never

  • built a jet-powered airliner and their last commercial aircraft, the turboprop

  • driven Electra, well it was kind of a disaster. Plagued by early accidents and

  • poor sales. Lockheed had something to prove, so they would set out to build an

  • advanced airliner to make rival McDonnell Douglas's entry look like

  • yesterday's news. After all, this was the company that had just finished building

  • the SR-71 Blackbird. So, surely they could handle designing an

  • airliner. Lockheed's design called for a center-mounted engine to receive air

  • through a curving S-duct. The problem was, there wasn't an engine in production short

  • enough to fit the installation. And the only engine manufacturer to have

  • anything on the drawing board that would fit, was Rolls-Royce. But what they had

  • looked promising. A lighter more efficient engine that would give the

  • L-1011 an advantage. But here's the thing, someone at Rolls Royce must have been

  • one hell of a smooth talker, because Rolls Royce was about to

  • seriously over promise and under deliver.

  • Even before Rolls-Royce's engine would fail the bird-strike test, shattering its

  • innovative Hyfill fanstage to pieces, it had been struggling. After years of

  • work, it still couldn't meet the performance requirements that it had promised

  • Lockheed. And the financial situation at Rolls-Royce was a mess. In 1971, it was

  • forced to declare bankruptcy. And Rolls pointed the finger squarely at the

  • L-1011 program. But things were also looking bad on Lockheed's end. Its own

  • financial situation by now had deteriorated. It struggled with cost

  • overruns and other defense project cancellations. And a Rolls-Royce

  • bankruptcy would mean no engine for the L-1011. Finding an alternative would mean

  • massive delays that Lockheed was in no position to ride out. But you can't get

  • any more British than Rolls-Royce, and the Government wasn't about to let a

  • company of such national importance just disappear. So, the British government

  • nationalized the company and worked with the Americans to guarantee bank loans

  • for Lockheed, so that there would be an L-1011 to purchase those Rolls-Royce

  • engines. And this allowed Rolls-Royce to sort out their engineering issues. And

  • they ended up with a fantastic engine. But for Lockheed, there was always an

  • elephant in the room. For years, American Airlines has dreamed of having a quiet

  • plane with virtually smokeless engines as comfortable as the 747, but able to

  • land at almost any commercial airport. Introducing the new DC-10 Luxury-Liner

  • See, even before the whole engine debacle, American Airlines had decided to go with

  • the rival DC-10. McDonnell Douglas was a proven manufacturer with a track record

  • in civil aviation. Lockheed on the other hand was the new player. While the L-1011

  • would pick up early sales from the large Airlines, its sales would always lag

  • behind the DC-10, even as the DC-10 started blowing out its cargo doors and

  • sprinkling the Midwest with engine parts. But the big problem was that these

  • aircraft were too big fish sharing a little pond. There wasn't a big enough

  • market to support two wide-body tri-jets and sales of both suffered for it.

  • And by the late 1970's and early 80's, a new kind of aircraft had entered the

  • market. The efficient wide-body twin-jet that Frank Kolk had always really wanted.

  • Newly formed Airbus had introduced the A300, taking a big chunk out of both

  • L-1011 and DC-10 tri-jet sales. Lockheed would only ever sell half the TriStars it

  • would need just to break even, and it was eventually forced to shut down

  • production in 1984. The TriStar certainly wasn't perfect. No machine is. Some claim

  • it was over-engineered, making it a bit of a maintenance hog. But it was the most

  • advanced airliner of its day, save maybe for the Concorde. The Tristar would earn

  • a fantastic safety record and it was loved by pilots and passengers alike. But

  • it couldn't get past its rocky start and the realities of an overcrowded and

  • quickly changing market. The L-1011 was a technological marvel, but by Lockheed's

  • own admission, a financial failure. And that goes to show you that great design,

  • engineering, and business go hand in hand. Whether in aviation or any other field,

  • it takes a wide range of skills to succeed. And that's where SkillShare

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This Plane Could Even Land Itself: Why Did The L-1011 Fail?

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    joey joey posted on 2021/05/31
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