Interestingly, Air India was very close to being an original customer for the Tristar 500. During the early 1980s it was looking for a replacement for its Boeing 707 fleet and after a hard battle between the L-1011-500, McDonnell Douglas DC-10 and Boeing 747SP the Indian flag carrier placed an order for the type in late 1981. Or at least it almost did, as the deal was actually a letter of intent rather than a firm order. It covered 3 Tristar 500s with 3 further options.
The selection of the L-1011 was a little puzzling, not necessarily because it was a poor aircraft but because of the situation of both Lockheed and Air India itself.
From a Lockheed perspective the entire Tristar programme was on life-support, as the last new airline order for the type had been made in September 1979 by TAP Air Portugal. Air India started its search for a 707 replacement in October 1980 so it was already by this point clear the Tristar programme was in jeopardy. Lockheed had themselves suggested in May 1981 that Tristar production may cease and this announcement actually caused Lockheed’s share price to rise significantly. When the Air India deal was announced Lockheed’s share price went down again.
The Tristar had been suffering for some time. It never fully recovered from the problems Rolls-Royce encountered developing the engines and the failure to develop the baseline aircraft for long-range duties left it at a disadvantage against the McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30. The Lockheed Tristar 500 was a partial solution, but shortening the airframe to get the desired range was always a rather desperate move. It primarily benefited existing Tristar customers and those smaller airlines with a rather niche requirement for lower capacity and long-range.
The picture wasn’t quite as clear as the Air India chairman Raghu Raj was making out. Air India had undertaken 11 studies from October 1980 and apparently initially the studies actually showed that to replace the mixed fleet of 2 707-320Cs, 3 707-320Bs and 2 707-420s a mixture of Airbus A300s and 747s would be best across a ten-year period.
It seems that the real problem the A300 faced was that it was being used by Air India’s domestic rival Indian Airlines. Although both state-owned there was friction between the two airlines, as the latter tried to muscle in on international routes. Air India was apparently unhappy that, if it bought the A300, maintenance and handling would likely fall under the remit of Indian Airlines. The fear was that this would bolster Indian Airlines chances of acquiring international routes, such as those to the Middle-East.
The Tristar and the DC-10 actually also apparently performed more poorly than a 747SP / 747 combination but in the end the L-1011 was picked as it was the smallest three engine aircraft available. Air India wanted more than two engines for long over-water flights (this was well before ETOPS certification) to Africa. By early June 1981 the Air India board authorised the airline to approach the Indian Government to setup permission for the deal. Lockheed fended off Boeing by offering to position engine spares in Bombay, train 30 crew members and buy back the aircraft at book price if production was stopped.
Below: What might have been but never was. This is NOT a real photo of an Air India 747SP!
Ultimately the flights Air India wanted the three engines for accounted for less than 5% of its network and using the Tristars on shorter routes to the Gulf was not as economic. At the time some people even suggested that maybe the Tristar decision was all an elaborate ruse to get Boeing to offer even better pricing.
In the end the deal was never finalised and although the deal was worth nearly $200 million to Lockheed they decided, in December 1981, to cease L-1011 production with the last aircraft being delivered in 1984. Ultimately it was probably the right decision and Alia the last airline to acquire Tristars got its aircraft very cheaply.
Air India ultimately came to its senses and acquired a trio of Airbus A300B4s in 1982. The aircraft couldn’t fly to Africa and the newer 707-320s continued in service. The true replacement for the 707s ended up being the shorter Airbus A310-304, which was capable of undertaking ETOPs flights.
Air India was already in serious financial trouble by the late 1980s as has been covered in:
With the ousting of Rajan Jetley the carrier lapsed into its old ways in the 90s, not helped by the devaluation of the Indian rupee in July 1991 and continued government interference. Attempts were made to try and privatise the airline but with no success. Perhaps symptomatic of the strange nature of business at Air India was that at the end of 1995 the airline took a punt on the Tristar 500 after all – fifteen years after the letter of intent.
Two aircraft were leased from Caribjet in December 1995 and served a lease for a year. Interestingly both were some of the last L-1011-500s built having only been delivered to Alia in June 1985. Both passed to TAP Air Portugal in 1988 and served with them for nearly 8 years until sale to Caribjet just before the Air India lease.
Judging by photos on Airliners.net they were almost solely used by Air India to right-size routes to Europe. Photos show them at London Heathrow, Paris CDG, Amsterdam Schiphol and especially Frankfurt Main. Both aircraft kept their new and unusual V2 pre-fixed registrations, but were painted into full Air India colours. The painting was done with care and they even had small L-1011 titles forward. Presumably they looked as they would have if the original L-1011s had been delivered aside from lacking a silver belly.
Both aircraft left the fleet by 1997 and served interesting and unusual careers afterwards both with reputable carriers, like Novair and Air Transat, plus a host of weird airlines like Gee Bee Air, LUZair, Globe Jet Airlines and KallatEl Saker Air. Air India has continued to be something of a basket-case since. Quite what the rationale behind leasing a pair of Tristars in 1995 could have been I am not sure, but it gave spotters the chance to see the type in a highly unusual livery and a vision of an alternate reality where Tristar production hadn’t been shuttered and AI had taken delivery of its original order.
1981, December. Air India puts the cat amongst the pigeons by its Tristar decision. India Today
Birtles, P.J. Modern Civil Aircraft: 8 Lockheed Tristar. Ian Allan
Davies, R.E.G. Airlines of the Jet Age
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: