I saw it lifting from the runway at RSW, plain white with the windows masked off and not a single bit of livery to be seen, nose up and stretching for the sky with the exuberance you’ll sometimes see when there are no passengers to be placated or drinks to be kept level. “That’s… a DC-10,” I told Danger Girl, “or… wait… it’s probably an MD-11.” As we rounded off the main road and headed to the rental return area I saw two more of them parked at Terminal B. Were they military? NASA? Some sort of black-ops equipment that dare not speak its name on the fuselage but which also didn’t need to be hidden too carefully from the retirees, golfers, and snowbirds that use the Fort Myers airport on a daily basis?
None of the above. These were MD-11F freighters operated by Western Global, part of its eleven identical trijet fleet. Western Global is a very new airline, having recently celebrated its fourth year in operation. You won’t ever take a ride on a Western Global plane, unless you are a specialized piece of cargo or possibly a FedEx package on an overflow weekend. (And if that’s the case, how are you reading this site?) The last passenger flights to use an MD-11 happened three years ago, with a KLM plane named “Audrey Hepburn”. That final flight occurred just a few months after the MD-11’s predecessor, the occasionally star-crossed McDonnell-Douglas DC-10, took its final passenger flight with a Bangladeshi airline.
The trijet era is a footnote in aviation history now — but it’s worth taking a quick look at how these early widebody aircraft both exemplified and influenced some of the tropes in both engineering and marketing that continue to raise their ugly heads in the aviation — and automotive — world even today.
As a plane-obsessed pre-teen and Airman First Class in the Civil Air Patrol, it frustrated me to no end that my personal flying experience was almost entirely limited to the Cessna 172 owned by our CAP squadron and the fleet of DC-9s operated by Eastern Air Lines. Once or twice a year, our family would head towards Florida to see my grandparents. We always flew on Eastern and the equipment was almost always a DC-9. I would half-walk, half-run behind my quick-striding father through the terminal at Baltimore or National or wherever and I’d see all these wonderful planes — 747-200s with their short humps, 707s and DC-8s that sat low and menacing on their Fifties-era landing gear, stretched 727s in polished aluminum. But the aircraft at the end of our gate was almost always a DC-9.
One day, however, it was time to fly somewhere else. I can’t remember where. Might have been Denver, where I had cousins for a while. But what I do remember was that the equipment turned out to be a Lockheed L-1011. The famed “Whisperjet”. Even as a child, I knew that the L-1011 was better than a DC-10. It was the engineer’s choice and the frequent flyer’s choice and the eleven-year-old civil-aviation connoisseur’s choice. (If you want to know why, here’s an outstanding discussion of the plane’s many virtues.) When we got on the plane, I had a chance to sit somewhere I’d never been before — in the center aisle of an aircraft.
It had in-flight entertainment via old-school (but brand-new at the time) sound-tube disposable headphones and it offered several “radio” channels. I was over the moon for the duration, turning slightly sullen when it was time to leave the plane four hours later. The trip home was also on a “TriStar”, but I was a seasoned wide-body hand by then and I practiced looking unimpressed just in case there were any other kids on the plane who were flying in an L-1011 for the first time and needed an example of how to behave with dignity. A stewardess pinned a set of Eastern wings on my velour Lacoste sweater after a whisperjet-style discussion with my father that seemed to last much longer than it needed to.
“Is this your first time on a big plane like this?” she asked.
“N-n-n-no it is not,” I stuttered. How embarrassing. Hadn’t she noticed the assured nature with which I selected my seat from the expanded alphabetic range in every row? Or had my fumbling inability to find the recliner button, brought to a horrifying close by my father saying “It’s right there, God damn it” then shoving my hand towards the miniature console to the left of me, been the thing that caught her eye? And she kept coming back to our row of seats. At the time I thought it was because of something I’d done. Actually, I believed that until five minutes ago when I summoned the story from the thickly-dusted corners of my memory and viewed it through adult eyes. When I was eleven years old, Dad was thirty-seven, still running marathons, and just starting to really indulge his penchant for white-label Armani suits. He was flying away every week, possibly on Whisperjets. I resolved to be just like him when I grew up. It didn’t happen. I finish on a Friday / and sit in traffic on the highway.
The L-1011 and the DC-10 were both the children of a new requirement from American Airlines: Make something that sits between the 707 and the 747. At the time there was no such beast. The requirement also called for extended overwater passenger travel, something that at the time was only permitted with four-engined aircraft. The trijet was the obvious answer — so obvious that the two major players in the market ended up being almost identical in dimensions and capability.
It was an era of engineering diversity in everything from cars to can openers to civil aviation. Rotary engines, anti-lock brakes, airbags, AWD for passenger vehicles, transverse FWD packaging. World War II was barely twenty years in the rearview mirror and yet much of the world would have been unrecognizable to a Rip Van Winkle from 1942. It was a pre-Cambrian explosion of engineering and design and innovation, all accomplished with slide rules and materials-engineering textbooks and back-of-the-envelope talent. There was a belief that if something looked right, it would probably be right. And if it wasn’t, you’d send flowers to the test pilot’s family and try again.
The L-1011 didn’t last, a casualty of engine-supply issues and its manufacturer’s profound suspicion of any market but the military one, but the DC-10 went on to be a necessary staple of overwater travel across the globe. Yet it was never quite as good as the airlines wanted it to be. The MD-11 that succeeded it failed to meet its performance targets and by the time McDonnell-Douglas got the thing right the confidence of the airlines had wavered.
At the same time, there was a sea change going on. The aviation market had decided that trijets were unnecessary and that larger twin-engined aircraft could service the trijet routes. It was all about cost and complexity; a trijet like the L-1011 is much more complicated than a Boeing 767 in terms of components and control routing. There wasn’t a lot of data to back up the assertion that twins could do it better, but once Boeing and Airbus each independently decided to standardize on twins the momentum was unstoppable.
In that sense, “big twins” are like today’s 2.0 turbo engines. Nobody knows exactly why we’ve standardized on these annoying, characterless, underperforming boosted four-bangers, but neither is there any willingness to be the last person to jump on the bandwagon. It becomes an consensual illusion and the burden of proof regarding its merit effortlessly, even magically, shifts off the shoulders of the true believers and onto those of the skeptics.
There was just one little hitch. It wasn’t legal to fly big twins for long overwater distances. So the law was changed. Today we have ETOPS regulations that let triple-sevens cross the Pacific by direct routes and let Southwest 737s go to Hawaii. Whenever I think of ETOPS I think of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. Yet it doesn’t stop me from taking a Dreamliner to the UK or a raggedy-ass old 767 out of Zurich. I’d be willing to pay a little more for a trijet but I doubt that most frequent fliers share my opinions in this regard. The twins are cheaper to fly and that’s why the trijets are all gone. Only the MD-11 Freighter remains, largely because it has the ability to carry a remarkable amount of weight at a decent speed. Overbuilt and over-specced as a passenger plane, it’s just right for freight. Yet there’s not enough of a freight market to bring it back. Even Western Global, with its somewhat touching manifesto of belief in trijets, is starting to acquire 747-400s in non-passenger configuration. So that’s the end.
Nowadays the civil-aviation and passenger-car markets both seem to be stuck in this state of stagflated indifference when it comes to genuine technical innovation or even noticeable differences. The automakers are all rushing headlong towards this Platonic ideal of a featureless, cheap-to-build box that can be marked up profitably with the addition of a little “brand DNA”. There’s less authentic diversity in the market than there has ever been. Virtually everybody makes a CR-V and derives the major part of their profits from said CR-V. If you want to do anything else you have to answer to the board, and what the board wants is simply a Lexus RX350 that costs less to produce so you’d better get cracking on that.
The same is true with airlines and their manufacturers. The pace of non-electronic innovation is slowing to a crawl. The newest thing from Boeing is the 737MAX, which shares some dimensions with the 707 and 727. Nobody’s willing to risk anything new. They’ve all been burned; Boeing with the difficult Dreamliner and Airbus with the overpriced A380. Yet history contains example after example of aviation manufacturers who “struck out” with new products yet went on to innovate, and triumph, with the next attempt. Today’s shareholders are too nervous for that sort of thing. They’d never countenance what Boeing did in the Sixties with the simultaneous development of the supersonic plane and the 747. They’d prefer to stick a wet finger in the wind until a gale-force gust comes to remove all doubt.
It’s funny. Nowadays you hear the term “disruption” thrown around like it’s the central tenet of modern business. But all they mean by “disruption” is “build a better Instagram”. Boeing, Lockheed, McDonnell-Douglas — those were genuinely disruptive manufacturers. They made the DC-8, the 707, the 747, the L-1011. They built daring products in the expectation that the market would respond. Sometimes it did. Sometimes it didn’t. In the end they were all either broken or bent by a rush towards cautious consolidation and fearful approaches to the future.
The near-term future is full of twinjets and crummy two-liter turbos and it will stay that way until some true disruptor makes it abundantly plain what will come next. I have an idea regarding that future heretic. The Tristar Experience is going to use a restored L-1011 to teach, encourage, and inspire the next generation of “STEM” students. I hope that one of them truly internalizes the lessons taught by the Whisperjet. Innovation, strength of engineering, discipline in construction. I hope that some young man or woman has a vision of the next revolution in civil aviation while they’re sitting in that old L-1011. I hope they go on to develop something that changes civil aviation forever — and for the better. Whether it’s supersonic flight for the masses or ultra-economical alternative power or rocket service to Mars. It doesn’t matter. Let’s have the new, the challenging, the difficult, the prone-to-failure, the hard-to-justify. Let’s have it sooner rather than later. And let it soar up and away, like an old MD-11 finally given permission to rotate into the sky at the limit of its design envelope. The way we all would, if somebody hadn’t long ago convinced us to the contrary. If we hadn’t learned to think of ourselves as DC-9s, flying the short routes in pursuit of behavior that is predictable, profitable, and ultimately pathetic.