The design featured a twin-aisle interior, low noise emissions (in the early 1970s, Eastern Air Lines nicknamed the L-1011 TriStar "The WhisperLiner"), improved reliability, and efficient operation. American Airlines opted for the Douglas DC-10, although it had shown considerable interest in the L-1011. American's intent in doing so was to convince Douglas to lower its price for the DC-10, which it did.
Without the support of American, the TriStar was launched on orders from TWA and Eastern Air Lines. Although the TriStar's design schedule closely followed that of its competitor, the DC-10, Douglas beat Lockheed to market by a year due to delays in powerplant development. In February 1971, after massive development costs associated with the TriStar's RB211 turbofan engines, Rolls-Royce filed for bankruptcy. This halted L-1011 final assembly, but by then it was too late to change engine suppliers (to either General Electric or Pratt & Whitney). The British government agreed to approve a large state subsidy to restart Rolls-Royce operations on condition that the U.S. government guarantee the bank loans that Lockheed needed to complete the L-1011 project. Despite some opposition, not least from the then Governor of California Ronald Reagan, the U.S. government provided these guarantees.
The main visible difference between the TriStar and DC-10 is in the middle/tail engine; the DC-10's engine is mounted above the fuselage for more power, while the TriStar's engine is integrated into the tail through an S-duct (similar to the Boeing 727) for improved quietness and stability. The earlier versions of the L-1011, such as the -1, -100, and -150 can be distinguished from the later models by the design of the middle engine nacelles. The earlier version nacelle has a round intake while the later designed models have a small vertical fin between the bottom of the middle engine intake and the top of the fuselage.
The L-1011 was the first widebody to receive FAA certification for Cat-IIIc autolanding, which approved the TriStar for completely blind landings in zero-visibility weather. It also had a unique Direct Lift Control (DLC) system, which allowed for smooth approaches when landing. DLC helps maintain the descending glideslope on final approach by automatically deploying spoiler panels on the wings. Thus, rather than maintaining the descent by adjusting pitch, DLC helps control the descent while maintaining a more consistent pitch angle; four redundant hydraulic systems; production also utilized a unique "autoclave" system for bonding fuselage panels together. This made the L-1011 extremely resistant to corrosion.
The prototype first flew on November 16, 1970. The crew for that flight was H. B. Dees (pilot), Ralph C. Cokely (copilot), and G. E. Fisher (development engineer). The first TriStar was finally delivered to Eastern Air Lines on April 26, 1972.
Lockheed bribed the members of the Japanese government to subsidize ANA's purchase of L-1011s. The resulting political scandal led to the arrest of Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka. Within Lockheed, board chairman Daniel Haughton and vice chairman and president Carl Kotchian resigned from their posts on February 13, 1976. Tanaka was eventually tried and found guilty of violating foreign exchange control laws, but was not charged with bribery, a more serious criminal offense.
Lockheed needed to sell 500 planes to break even, but in 1981 announced that production would end with delivery of the 250th and last plane on order in 1984. The TriStar's failure to achieve profitability caused Lockheed to withdraw from the civil aircraft business.
The Royal Air Force has nine aircraft of four variants. The aircraft are ex-British Airways and Pan Am L-1011-500s. Two of the aircraft are designated TriStar K.MK 1s and are pure tankers. Another four are KC1s and can be either tankers or passenger/cargo aircraft. The two TriStar C.Mk 2 models and the solitary TriStar C. Mk 2A are pure passenger aircraft. The C2A differs from the C2 by having military avionics and radios. The RAF's TriStars were bought in the immediate aftermath of the Falklands War to bolster the long range capability of the RAF in the transport and tanker roles. All of the aircraft serve with No. 216 Squadron, based at RAF Brize Norton.
The aircraft have seen service in many recent conflicts. Two were deployed to King Khalid International Airport, near Riyadh in Saudi Arabia during the 1991 Gulf War as tankers, with the rest used for transport between the Persian Gulf and UK. The two aircraft deployed received nose art naming them Pinky and Perky. During the 1999 Kosovo War, TriStars deployed to Ancona in Italy, again as tankers, with four aircraft involved. TriStars joined Vickers VC-10s in the AAR role for Operation Veritas (Afghanistan), during which they provided aerial-refueling for US Navy aircraft. Their most recent wartime role was again over the skies of Iraq. The RAF deployed four TriStars during Operation Telic, to an as-yet-undisclosed location.