When the decision was made to go ahead with the L-1011 program in mid-1968, Lockheed California Company began construction of a space-age manufacturing facility to build the TriStar in an area ideally suited for aviation development. An excellent year-round flying weather and civic-mindedness already oriented toward aviation were major factors that prompted Lockheed to select the city of Palmdale, California, in Antelope Valley, for the site of one of the world's most advanced technology fabrication and assembly plants to produce what was to become the world's most technologically advanced airliner of its time.
Moreover, Lockheed and Palmdale were no strangers. During the production peaks on the T-Birds and the F-94 Starfire military aircraft, especially at the height of the Korean emergency, Lockheed needed a supplemental field for flight testing of the planes as they rolled out of the assembly plant at Van Nuys, California. To fill the need, the company leased 225 acres at Palmdale Airport, and built a $400,000 flight station there, which began operations in 1951. The idea was to transfer the occasionally hazardous flight testing away from the growing air traffic, smog, unpredictable weather and the population explosion around the already-populated Los Angeles area. About the same time, the company also purchased 677 acres of land adjacent to a $30-million facility the U.S. Air Force was building at Palmdale. This isolated spot would be used to build the highly secret XB-70 supersonic bomber. Today, occupying slightly more than one-third of this Lockheed-owned property bordering Air Force Plant 42 and a U.S. Government airport with 12,000-foot runways, TriStars could be rolled out of the huge final assembly hangar at a rate of about ten per month. Appropriately named after the trijet, the facility was named 'The Star Factory In The Desert'.
Designated Plant 10, the more-than $50-million seven-building complex was designed specifically to incorporate the most advanced concepts in aircraft production and logistical support. Plant 10, surrounded by Mojave Desert's Joshua trees and cedars, encloses nearly 1,300,000 square feet of floor space under one roof. It lies 42 miles north of Los Angeles, 20 minutes flying time, about an hour by an automobile from Lockheed Aircraft Corporation's main office and plant at Burbank. More than 6,000 people worked here, and their payroll ran upwards to $1 million a day!
Indeed, the Lockheed-California Company's Palmdale final assembly and flight test complex has changed the complexion of the whole area. As someone once remarked "It has turned the desert green!". Literally, this is true. One can see it as he walks up to the entrance of the modern administration building which accommodates offices for Lockheed personnel, customer airline representatives, and ground training facilities for future TriStar crews. The once brown and barren desert floor was transformed into green grass and flower beds. The transformation, a two-years process, was a gargantuan task. Contractors such as the William Simpson Co., Butler Construction Co. and the C & I Construction Co. used a total of 20,000 tons of structural steel to frame the buildings. This is enough steel to lay 50 miles of railroad tracks!
Builders poured 183,000 cubic yards of concrete for factory floors and outside parking ramps and taxiways, enough to build 15 miles of a two-lane highway. The steel, concrete, and 25,000 tons of additional materials that make up the building would fill 4,145 railroad boxcars. Such a train would stretch, engine to caboose, almost from Palmdale to Burbank.
But what goes on here is what's important to this story. TriStar subassemblies and other production materials flow into the plant by either truck, air, or rail, the latter along a spur line, which also had to be built, directly onto dual sidings inside a section of the main assembly building. The building's structure towers 115 feet high, measures 900 feet by 590 feet, a total of 868,522 square feet on the first floor alone, exceeding the size of the famed Houston Astrodome by almost four acres. It is here that the pieces come together, with the factory floor divided about equally between the TriStar fuselage assembly and the final assembly area. Lockheed California President Robert A. Furhman stated "This building is big enough to turn out aircraft twice the size of the L-1011. And one day that may happen."
After an aircraft goes through the various stages of completion, it would move out through the mammoth hangar doors and receive a check to see whether all avionics and flight test instrumentation had been installed and were functional. Production Flight Test hangar. When everything checks out, they were then towed over to the Production Flight Test hangar.
An amazing point in aircraft production is that all parts fit perfectly together even though some of the subassemblies are manufactured thousands of miles distant from the factory in the desert. Passenger and cargo doors, for example, were manufactured in Gifu City, Japan while the aft engine duct was built in Winnipeg, Canada. Wings for the TriStar came from the home of country music, Nashville, Tennessee. However, this is something obvious when manufacturing planes. The secret to the TriStar's excellence lies in modern technology and computerization. Millions of bits of data created through millions of hours of design and study were fed into computers and stored there. Then these data are transferred to other computers to become guidelines to run the machines, turning out precision parts to exact measurements. From a master template, one might say, the titan comes together. In technical jargon, they call it computerized lofting.
Experience and know-how also play a major part. A typical one is Lockheed's relationship with Avco Aerostructures Division in Nashville, Tennessee, committed initially to build 350 sets of wings for the L-1011, including tooling for which Lockheed contracted to pay a whopping big $575 million. Avco and Lockheed had first gotten together on the C-130 Hercules transport back in 1954. Ever since, the Aerostructures division has turned out vertical and horizontal stabilizers for this military workhorse. Then there was the C-141, for which Avco Aerostructures built the wings again, and was followed by the C-5, for which Avco again won the wing contract in competition with other airframe builders. With this record of successful, on-time performance behind it, Avco Aerostructures made an all-out effort to win the competition to build the wings for the L-1011.
However, the TriStar program entailed some hard management decisions, including the outlay of more than $110-million for the buildings, tooling jigs and test equipment needed to perform on the contract. Boeing airplanes were still selling well, and arch rival McDonnell Douglas DC-10 had been launched well before Avco and Lockheed's agreement. This imposed a risk on the project, for if only an insufficient number of L-1011s were sold, then both companies would lose a considerable sum of hardwon investment money.
In October 1969, Avco Aerostructures Division dedicated new facilities in which it could build, test and load for shipment the wings destined for the L-1011. It added 500,000 square feet of space to its facilities next to Berry Field at Nashville, Tennessee, bringing the division's total plant floor space to about 2,100,000 square feet. Work began immediately on production of the wings, each 88 feet long, 24 feet wide at the point of attachment, and 4 feet wide at the tip. Each had 3,500 square feet of surface area and weighed some 20,000 pounds. A complete set of wings for one L-1011 required the fabrication and assembly of almost 15,000 detail parts. The first wing was shipped by air aboard a Super Guppy air transport direct from Nashville to Palmdale, California, on April 27, 1970. A few days later the Super Guppy returned and hauled the other side of the wing to complete the set for the first L-1011 to come off the assembly line at Palmdale.
By the end of 1971, Avco Aerostructures had delivered 17 complete sets of wings to Lockheed. and during the same period made an economic decision that it would be better to ship the wings by rail rather than by air.
Lockheed had another advantage putting the TriStar together. The late Dick Fliedner, the first Director of L-1011 Manufacturing, put it this way: "Somebody once said it is impossible to build bridges and make movies. Some days we think it's that way with airplanes. But we've got pros solving our production problems. They began building Lockheed airplanes out of wood, and they've been with us all the way to titanium. L-1011 design details, materials selections, manufacturing processes and development testing solved most potential production difficulties with the TriStar before they could occur."
An example of the 'old pros' at work is evidenced by the fact that the major tooling for the L-1011 was designed and manufactured in Lockheed's Plant B-l at Burbank, birthplace of the well-known Electra line and the P-38. Typical was the huge jig for the assembly of fuselage panels, a product of Plant B-l's machine shops. Wherever possible, the jigs and special machinery needed to build the L-1011 was done in-house, and often, design and development of the tools produced greater problems than the final assembly of the aircraft itself.
Development of new and revolutionary fabrication techniques succeeded. The side walls of the TriStar's main cabin fuselage area, for instance, introduced a new type of construction. The barrel-shaped section of semi-monocoque shell construction is comprised of tapered frames and thick skins - without stringers - rather than the conventional frame, skin and stringers. Forming these large panels required special stretcher presses, and a new bonding technique, and Lockheed pioneered both.
According to James B. Beach, Chief Engineer L-1011 Production Design - "The ex-tensive use of structural adhesive bonding of doublers, triplers and lapped skin panels into large panel assemblies (up to 15 feet by 38 feet) is an important new development offering improved fatigue life, corrosion resistance and durability. Such large bonded panels are being used for the first time on the L-1011, and their production is made possible only by the use of the largest autoclave in the aerospace industry." At Plant B-l. Burbank, the autoclave is one of the major attractions. It is the world's biggest 'pressure cooker'. Interestingly, the process is remindful of the early days at Lockheed when fuselage halves of the first 'Vegas' of plywood and resin went into their molds. The difference, perhaps, is progress catching up with progress. But in principle, there is great similarity. Another revolutionary operation exclusive with the TriStar is what goes on inside the huge paint hangar, the third largest building. At Lockheed's demand for advancement wherever possible in production of its new jetliner, the company early in the TriStar program launched an effort aimed toward the dual goals of a better aircraft paint and a better system of applying it. The effort proved successful, resulting in development of a substantially improved polyurethane paint and the design and construction of a unique paint hangar that, among numerous other advancements, permits painting an entire TriStar fuselage with one coat in just 43 minutes.
Under past methods, application of a paint coat to the big planes' 8,632-square-foot fuselage surface would have required a minimum of four hours. Concepts for design of the paint hangar, its equipment and the techniques of application were established following a year-long survey of aircraft paint systems then used in the aircraft and airline industries. Results of this study indicated the most efficient way of painting aircraft would be to apply the fuselage coat following assembly of the aircraft body, then return the fuselage to the main assembly building for mating with its wings. Following final assembly and rollout, the planes go through pre-delivery test flight with wings still unpainted, and then re-enter the paint hangar for covering the wings and any required touch-up. Key to the quick and evenly applied paint coats is the mobility of the painting platforms. In the fuselage booth, a high rate of production is achieved through the use of the world's largest mobile paint gantry, a huge inverted U-shaped room that straddles the fuselage. With painters manning stations at four different heights on either side of the TriStar body, the gantry moves steadily down the length of the booth on four rails as the paint is applied. The gantry, 36 feet long with a clear span height of 43 feet, weighs 93,000 pounds and is supplied with hot and cold de-ionized water, pneumatic air supply and electricity. Breathing air is piped into the gantry's interior for connection with the painter's hood, and the entire booth is air conditioned. An elaborate exhaust duct system built into the gantry draws off the paint fumes.
The paint hangar's wash and touch-up section, which could house a complete TriStar, occupies most of the structure's 67,000-square-foot floor space. This room is supplied with air at the rate of half-a-million cubic feet per minute. Washing and painting is conducted from mobile platforms suspended from overhead rails. The painter can direct the platform anywhere along the length of the fuselage on one side or turn and move out over the wing. The wing underside is painted from fixed platforms. Horizontal and vertical stabilizers are painted separately on jigs prior to mating in the main assembly building.
Many other innovations were evident everywhere at the Palmdale facility. Small wonder Robert W. Bell, Production Manager for L-1011 structures at Plant 10, a veteran of more than 34 years with Lockheed should remark - "This is the best plant I ever saw. At rate we can handle 39 of the L-1011's in the jigs, on the floor and on the flightline. We can deliver an airplane every two days, if we go to our full production rate." And at the official plant dedication ceremonies on July 20, 1970, California's Governor Ronald Reagan declared - "What an answer this facility is to those who feel only government can resolve our problems. Lockheed's L-1011 project is financed completely with private capital. It is an investment by the private sector in the future of the nation, state, and economic system in which they have total confidence and belief." He added - "Here, we are dedicating a $50 million facility for the L-1011, one of the most sophisticated commercial jetliners ever produced by man." Paradoxically, L-1011's began forming in the jigs and moving down the assembly line while the final assembly hangar was still under con-struction. And the first TriStar was ready for public display on the same day the building was built and dedicated.
Fabrication of TriStar No.1 was started on March 1, 1969. Work began, putting the pieces together on June 24 of the same year. On April 29, 1970, the first sets of wings arrived from Avco, and five days later wings and fuselage were mated. The large RB211 engines from Rolls-Royce arrived in June and after a rigid test program, they were installed in position in time for the plane to roll out on September 1, 1970. The rollout met a schedule which had been established two and a half years before, right on the nose! Painted in white with red and orange cheatlines, TriStar No.1 was escorted from the final assembly building by a delegation of stewardesses representing the six airlines that had ordered L-1011's at that time: Eastern Air Lines, Trans World Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Air Canada, Air Jamaica and Pacific Southwest Airlines. Also on hand were A. Carl Kotchian, president of the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation: Charles S. Wagner, president Lockheed California Company (now retired) and William M. Moran, vice president commercial programs. In its desert setting, the TriStar paused for photographers outside the vast building where she was constructed. It was then rolled into the adjacent Flight Test Hangar for undergoing preparations to try its wings.
On November 16, 1970, with L-1011 Project Test Pilot H. B. (Hank) Dees at her controls, the TriStar leaped gracefully off the desert runway and into her own domain on her maiden flight. Up front on the flight deck, her only other occupants were crew members Ralph C. Cokeley, Glenn E. Fisher and Rod C. Bray. The aircraft weighed 330,000 pounds before takeoff, including 85,000 pounds of fuel and 40,000 pounds of test instruments. She got off the ground at a liftoff speed of 152 knots and after a takeoff run of only 5,300 feet.
In accordance with its flightplan, the L-1011 reached an altitude of 20,000 feet and a speed of 250 knots on its first flight. She cruised the skies above the Mojave Desert for nearly two-and-a-half hours, an unprecedented long first flight (everything worked so well), before settling back to earth. Observers were particularly impressed with the quietness of the TriStar's RB211 engines. "She whispered off the runway, little more than a quiet hum," commented one newsman. "It was a lovely flight," Pilot Hank Dees told reporters. "We had good control, particularly with the flying tail. The Rolls-Royce engines ran fine. Pilots are going to like this airplane. Handling characteristics were better than our engineering simulations indicated." He also revealed that the test program inaugurated by the first flight would include some 1,500 separate flights totaling almost 1,700 flying hours. "Six L-1011s will take part in the year long program," he said, "leading up to certification of the aircraft by the Federal Aviation Administration."
Before that day would arrive when she would get her certificate of airworthiness, the TriStar was destined to face problems unrelated to her performance capabilities which threatened to bury the whole L-1011 program. Ahead would lie days of trial and triumph.