Not Stock: Orbital Sciences L-1011

In the 1960s, American Airlines was looking for a jet smaller than a 747 that could still fly long distances and carry 400 passengers. They approached Lockheed, who was reeling from the loss of some military contracts. Lockheed decided to give it a go, and wound up with a tri-jet configuration that would go by the name Lockheed L-1011 “Tristar”. Only 250 were produced, meaning Lockheed took a major loss on each one. Problems with engine supplier Rolls Royce hampered production. Meanwhile, the very similar Douglas DC-10 was stealing the show…and customers.

Considering production ended a mere 12 years after the aircraft entered service, the airframes are generally pretty low hour examples. Some small upstart airlines use them until they can finance newer, more efficient aircraft. An upstart rocket builder also uses one to launch it’s rocket into orbit.

Orbital Sciences was formed in 1982 to develop satellites and launch systems. One of their launch systems, making its first flight in 1990, is the Pegasus rocket. The Pegasus, unlike most rocket systems, is air launched. It must be carried to about 40,000 feet and dropped.

The air launch concept does two things: it allows for a smaller rocket since the rocket does not have to pass through the densest part of the atmosphere, and it allows for a flexible launch location. Different locations are preferred for different flight profiles. If the satellite is to have a polar orbit then launching further north, such as from Vandenberg AFB in California, is preferred. An equitorial orbit means a launch near the equator is preferred.

Shortly after the debut of the Pegasus rocket, Orbital Sciences modified a former Air Canada L-1011-100 to serve as its air launch craft. The same aircraft also supported NASA’s X-34 and X-43 programs. On board are now engineer stations with various systems for monitoring the aircraft and spacecraft performance.

In a little bit of nerd humor, the L-1011 that Orbital now uses as its launch platform is nicknamed the Stargazer. If you’re a Star Trek TNG fan, you might get the Stargazer-Pegasus connection. Jean-Luc Picard was the captain of a ship called the Stargazer. First Officer William Riker served aboard a ship called Pegasus.

[Image Credits: Public Domain]

  • OA5599

    Air launched rocket systems also have the advantage that you can set up base operations wherever there is a suitable runway, typically someplace with good engineering and technical resources, fly out over the ocean, then hit the launch button where the explody bits won't crash back down on your workers' families. No need to buy oceanfront property or launch retrograde.

  • fodder650

    The L-1011 would be Lockheed's last airliner because of the poor sales as well. Both it and the DC-10 had a lot of accidents that left passengers nervous when they got on either plane.

    • Number_Six

      The L-1011 (we only ever called it Tristar when I was a kid) was one of my favourite airliners to fly in. The cabin was massive, and it had the most spacious and therefore greatest mile-high club bathrooms…in the world…However, I did often think about the slight crashiness.

      • I'm going to say it's the best sounding jetliner to boot, except Concorde perhaps. The trio of RB211s with that grinding whine they emit; airports just don't sound like that anymore.

        Also:- I dunno; compared to an Airbus or a 747, inside, in feel, sound, smell, I dunno, there was a feeling, it was, I dunno, slightly… military.

        Great plane.

  • fodder650

    Let me put this out to Engineered as well. I had thought the Pegasus project was dead. I'm glad to hear that it is still around. The only other air launched rocket of its type I was aware of was an anti-satellite one. I believe that the US and China had tested them successfully.

  • CaptianNemo2001

    Howard Hughes in part killed the Tristar after he ordered something like 43 (id have to look at my books) and then the Rolls Royce issues popped up along with finance issues from Hughes and i think the FAA was giving crap with the airplane as well. Plus I think in one of my books Lockheed was having construction issues on top of this Hughes was making demands and voicing his opinion. There was something else going on as well that i cant remember… In the end i think Hughes was divested of his aircraft to keep his company afloat and it took Lockheed several years to get rid of the extra aircraft.

  • I remember flying on one of the Delta Airlines L-1011s in the late 1990s or so.

    • TechieInHell

      …and? Did you crash and die like everybody thought you would?

      • I was blissfully unaware of the L-1011s tendency to fall out of the sky at the time. I think I was on the way to Vegas too.