Twilight Of The Trijets

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.

39 Replies to “Twilight Of The Trijets”

  1. AvatarNick D

    As explained by the pilot on my last trans oceanic flight, the technically accurate definition of ETOPS is engines turn or passengers swim.

  2. AvatarRoger Stafford

    Great one, Jack. I, too, loved the L-1011.

    I once rode one from Portland all the way to Atlanta, but the Eastern Airlines flight I was on was supposed to go to Seattle first. Fog prevented that SeaTac stop and the plane was needed at Hartsfield. So after about 6 laps around Mr. Rainier, we returned to PDX for fuel and took off directly for Atlanta. I crossed the country in the Tri-Star with only two other passengers. Crew told us to sit anywhere we wanted, free drinks and 1st class meals for all.

    Thanks for bringing back a great memory.

  3. AvatarSightline

    Forget it Jack, it’s efficiency-town.

    The trijets were a little strange, neither fish nor fowl, engineered for a specific purpose (a smaller-than-747 widebody) that basically ceased to exist when ETOPS allowed 767s to fly transatlantic in the mid-Eighties. So everything ends up as twinjets because
    1) There’s basically no safety difference, given that the rate of multiple engine failures in a flight for a modern airliner is basically 0,
    2) You’re not carting around an extra engine everywhere you go so fuel and maintenance is much cheaper,
    3) High/hot matters a lot less now that engines can develop much more thrust for a specific nacelle size and fuel consumption (the GEnx engines on the 747-8 develop 30% more thrust than the JT9Ds on the DC10 while being much quieter), and
    4) Performance doesn’t matter nearly as much since planes are flying no faster (or sometimes slower) for the aforementioned efficiency concerns.

    I mean, Airbus had to learn this lesson TWICE, once on the A340 which got absolutely killed by the 777 (Even John Leahy, Airbus’ famously prickly head of sales, called the 777 “a much better airplane”) and then again on the 380 which is basically down to Emirates as it’s sole large customer. Commercial aviation wants lots of flights to point airports as efficiently as possible.

    In one sense, this isn’t a lack of innovation as much as a mature market with very well known optimization vectors. Carriers know what they want, and plane manufacturers are innovating in areas that you can’t see as much, like the composites in the 787, or the GEnx/Trent engines, etc). We just live on a different part of the curve now: cutting half an hour off of flight time across the Atlantic doesn’t matter, cutting out a cent per passenger-seat-mile does.

    If we’re going to ask the carriers and manufacturers to innovate, we should ask ourselves what that would look like?” Supersonic? Is that feasible in a high cost / low carbon world?
    Bigger? Smaller?
    Faster? (Boeing tried that with the Sonic Cruiser, nobody was interested, although you could say that was a halfassed attempt to steal thunder from the A380 announcement)
    Electric? Does anyone believe this is feasible? I haven’t done enough research to know

    (Also, the DC-10 was famously cost-controlled to the point where safety was compromised, leading to the Bloodhound Gang to declare “Like a DC-10 I’m guaranteed to go down”).

    • AvatarJoe

      My father was on a specific dc10 three or four takeoff/landing cycles before it crashed into a mobile home park just out of Chicago, the engine mount/pylon on the right wing failed, the engine wrapped itself over the top of the wing and destroyed hydraulic circuits for flight controls, I don’t know if I would get on one of those, always thought the L-1011 was a pretty aircraft, wondered where Jack was going with that rather cryptic IG post!

  4. AvatarBigtruckseriesreview

    I absolutely hate Boeing’s old jets.
    At this point I prefer Airbus.
    Now Boeing could change that by giving us better spacing and comfort, but as is: I’ll take an A380 over everything else and I dread being in those old shitty 767 or 777.

    I have an upcoming trip to Dubai -Phillipines. A380 from JFK-Dubai, but then I gotta deal with the possibility of having to be in these crappy old jets – and you never know if it’ll be a trijet or a twin, but you do know it’ll be cramped as F.

  5. AvatarRonnie Schreiber

    We were driving into Marquette, Michigan, on the shore of Lake Superior, when I noticed a big jet airplane flying south from over the lake towards the shore. This was the early 1980s so I said to my wife something about it looking like a 707 but by then many of those had been taken out of service due to poor fuel economy so I was a bit perplexed. Then, as the plane got closer I noticed that it had 8 engines hanging off the wings, not four, and that it was a lot larger than a 707. It was a B-52 flying into K.I. Sawyer AFB, which is now closed but was a Strategic Air Command base.

    Later on that trip, we decided to stop by the base to see if there were base tours. “No, sir, this is a secure installation.” While waiting in line at the guard shack we saw a couple of fighters, I think they were F-15s, coming in low for landings.

    • AvatarDisinterested-Observer

      Got buzzed by a B-52, I think it was Memorial Day the year after 9/11 in one of the places that was attacked. Scared the crap out of me. One of the loudest planes I have ever heard. Apropos of nothing, I once saw a completely blacked out, no markings F18 take off from a regional airport. I always wondered what it was doing.

  6. AvatarTomko

    L1011s were no whisper jets from the ground. IIRC that’s why they’re no longer flown.

    About a decade ago an L1011 was being ferried on its final flight: from YOW to CYRP. 15 nautical miles and right over my house. As I recall a special permit had to be issued for the flight. And you can imagine that with that brief distance the altitude was low and the thrust on maximum to keep the big bird aloft.

    I happened to be outside at the time and had never heard such profound jet noise overhead since my childhood in the Scwartzvald where F104s would regularly buzz my neighbourhood playground, lighting their afterburners to terrify the childen and locals below.

    Incidentally that L1011 finished its days at CYRP as a facility for anti-terrorist training.

    • AvatarNick D

      Speaking of loud, I’ve always wanted to hear an SR-71 start cart at full chat with 16 cylinders of Buick Wildcat fury roaring to max power. Apparently electric carts would work just as well, but one can’t start the most bad-ass flying machine in history with a whirr.

    • AvatarTomko

      CORRECTION; I have just discovered that it was a 727-100C – and not an L-1011 – that made that brief YOW – CYRP flight 14 years ago.

  7. AvatarScott Seigmund

    The effort put into the cabin design of the L1011 is fascinating. It’s like they actually cared about the passenger experience.

  8. AvatarDirty Dingus McGee

    In the early/mid 80’s I was on an L-1011 or MD-11at least twice a month(flying either Eastern or Delta out of Atlanta). Even flew on an L-1011 a couple of times to Germany. Due to their size it was rare I was ever on a completely full flight. Even when they were nearly full, the legroom, elbow room, etc was hard to beat.

    Today, I packed my corpulent self into a 737-800( again) for a flight from Atlanta to Phoenix. At 5’10” and a 30″ inseam, I had MAYBE 2″ of extra legroom. As far as elbow room, fugetaboutit.Empty seats? Capacity of 175 and there were 2 seats unused.

    Flying these days ain’t near as much fun as they make it look on TV. And don’t EVEN get me started about everbody and their cousin dragging some kind of “comfort animal” on with them. It’s beginning to resemble flying in a 3rd world country. One of these days I might nut up and bring a snake with me and claim it’s my comfort animal. Can’t throw me off or I’ll sue your ass.

  9. AvatarJohn C.

    This was a good read. Now how about a debate on the merits of the VC10 verses the 707. The 707 cleaned the VC10’s clock sales wise, but perhaps not if empires lasted a little longer and you still had to fly to colonial hot and high hell holes.

  10. AvatarRonnie Schreiber

    Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger deserved the credit he got for safely landing a large plane on water, but what Captain Alfred C. Haynes did with his DC-10 on United flight 232 may have been even more impressive since his plane was crippled much more severely.

    • AvatarTony the Tiger

      Yeah, Jack is leaving out the part about the DC-10’s comparatively poor safety record. Flight 232 was one, but there were several other crashes with fatalities. That accelerated the shift to 767s and 737-800s.

      Say what you will about ETOPS. But the number of over-water loss-of-power incidents in the ETOPS era has been so small as to be statistically meaningless. As a passenger I’m much more worried by the Airbus fly-by-wire user interface, found to be causative in the crash of Air France Flight 447 and others. I rest slightly easier on a Boeing.

      • AvatarRonnie Schreiber

        DC-10s had a terrible safety reputation. Whether it was deserved, statistically, or not I don’t know but I do know that there was some black humor, with people going “DC-10” and others starting to duck.

  11. Avatarzzrer

    Your newsletter is relevant to my interests. The first aircraft I flew on as a sentient young person was a Hawker-Siddeley Trident, which if you recall was the second-fastest cruising subsonic airliner ever built, and a tri-jet to boot.

    Speed is something else that the Big Two have traded for efficiency. The 747, Trident, and L-1011 all flew at extremely high subsonic speeds. Today’s airliners other than the 747 cruise at 100 or more mph than the smokey oldies.

    On another note: the bathrooms on the L-1011 were capacious enough for a 6’2″ male to comfortably enjoy mile-high fun with a 5’10” female. I heard.

    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      That final note is EXTREMELY relevant to my interests. Because the bathrooms on a Dreamliner are not great for that.

      • AvatarTony the Tiger

        The best current (commercial) aircraft for mile-high fun is the A340. The lavs are under decks, with doors out of casual sight of flight attendants. And they are capacious enough for two.

  12. Avatarscottm

    Boeing couldn’t bring back the MD-11 if they received an order for 1000 of them. One of the first things they did when they bought McDonnell Douglas was destroy all the tooling for the DC jets. They had to build the planes currently in production for 10 years per the union approval for the merger but any jets that weren’t in production had their tooling destroyed. And one minute after 10 years, they shut down the MD-95/717 line, even though they had orders on the books. Can’t have any competition for the 737. And this also bit them in the butt during the USAF tanker competition as the USAF really wanted more KC-10s but Boeing had to pull in some serious political favors to sell them on the 767 derivative.

  13. AvatarDeven

    I won several rounds of the Detroit area/regional punt, pass and kick contest as a ten year old boy. The next step after winning at half-time of the Thanksgiving Day game at the Silverdome was competing against kids from around the country in Tampa Bay. The trip down and back, my first ever trip on an airplane, was on an L-1011. Thanks for an interesting read and the great memories!

  14. AvatarPatrick King

    My first airplane flight was aboard a Northeast Airlines DC-3 at age three, from Boston to Bangor. My parents, brother and I also flew Northeast to Miami once a year, first on Convair 880s and then on Boeing 727s. The latter were rebranded Northeast Yellowbirds in the mid-sixties as part of a marketing campaign that saw the aircraft painted white and yellow with a “graphically-designed” NE logo on the tail, this in an era when most airlines featured a livery that was little more than red and/or blue lettering against bare aluminum. The effort included TV ads with a theme song and a local radio personality in a flowered shirt shouting “Come on down!” The strategy worked for a while but ultimately Northaest was absorbed by Delta.

    The most intriguing aircraft in the Northeast’s fleet, however, was the Vickers Viscount, a British-built, four-engine turboprop. My two most enduring memories of the Viscount were its silky smooth engines (compared to the piston engines of the airline’s DC-6Bs) and the plane’s huge, oval windows that afforded amazing views of the relatively close landscapes below.

    And although I never flew in them, the triple-tail Lockheed Constellation and the double-decker Boeing Stratocruiser (a civilian version of the WW II B-29 Superfortress) were still common sights at Logan International. To say nothing of pictures I’d seen of my father some years earlier as radio operator aboard the Boeing 314 Clipper, a four-engine, tri-tail, long distance luxury airliner that landed only in water: a flying BOAT!

    Diversity indeed!

    PS: I’m holding onto my six cylinder E46 as long as I can to help fight the scourge of the 2.0T.

  15. AvatarJ McG

    Jack, you must be reading my mail. Twenty or thirty years ago I would read a Peter Egan article and find myself mentally checking off boxes. Old British motorcycles? Check. Piper Cubs? Check. Fixing two seat convertibles roadside? Check.
    Now, I read your posts and do the same thing. Civil Air Patrol Cadet? Check. Doing stupid s**t on motorcycles? Check. Looking up at passing planes? Check.
    Now, its even more remarkable because I was staged out of Fort Myers International back in September while I was helping with the Hurricane Irma recovery effort. I saw those plain white DC10s on the ramp , but thought they were part of the advance party for President Trump, who flew in the day after we arrived. His retinue actually flew in on C-5 and C-17 transports along with some Marine Ospreys and Seahawks.
    I can only remember one L-1011 flight, a return trip from Ireland to JFK back in the 90’s. I’m sure I’ve been on a couple of DC-10s, but haven’t any idea where or when.
    I do remember my first 747 flight. I was an eight year old going to Ireland with my family. I remember looking out at the gigantic airplane waiting for us at the end of the skyway, resplendent in white and dark green. It was enormous inside, with a spiral staircase leading to the bar on the top level behind the flight deck. I was able to find my father there somewhere over Newfoundland I’m sure. We were allowed into the cockpit then, and I looked goggle-eyed at the assortment of gauges and switches that a Pilot would need to master before being allowed to fly such a machine.
    Twenty Seven years later I was on a British Airways 777 flight from Philadelphia to London and then on to Dublin. It was December 30, 1999. The Y2K scare was coming to a head. All the plans my friends and I had made were foundering on the jacked up prices of the End of the Millennium. I decided to head for Ireland. One of the first things I bought over the internet was that plane ticket. It cost me 218.00 round trip. There were only 14 passengers on the flight, we were outnumbered by the crew.
    Thoughtfully, they plied us with alcohol and food, thus ensuring that we’d sleep across the Atlantic.
    In a life filled with good decisions, it was one of my best.
    Fireworks on a Donegal beach followed by a raucous night in the pubs. My favorite pub back then was so crowded with revelers that the owner had to go around with a cordless screwdriver taking all the interior doors off their hinges to make room.
    Nowadays, they are flying the Atlantic with 757s. Its like the old 707s, but slower and far more crowded. Aer Lingus has become an Airbus shop, which I do not like. But the world moves on.
    Thanks Jack for your writing. You have a gift. My son is a little older than yours. He too is a CAP Cadet, with an eye for the sky and the things that travel there.

  16. AvatarJim

    I actually built L1011s after I flunked out of junior college. It was early in the production run when engine supplier Rolls Royse went bankrupt. I spent all summer on unemployment and racing dirt bikes. About the time I made expert, Rolls was making engines again and I went back to work

  17. AvatarKaemu

    The first time I came to US was on a DC10 operated by Air Afrique that flew from Dakar, Senegal to New York. We were allowed to spend quite a bit of time in the cockpit, which was cool.

      • AvatarRick T.

        Reminds me of a middling movie I saw recently ‘Harold and the Search for Happiness.” He was flying in Africa through some severe turbulence in some small old plane carrying people, luggage, and animals. His seatmate, an African woman, assured him that there was nothing to worry about because it was such an old plane and had been through so much in its lifetime that is was almost assuredly not going to crash.

  18. AvatarDavid Lorengo

    I was a design engineer at a tier 1 supplier in the mid 80s and worked on the MD-11 trailing edge and center engine inlet structures among other things. I was also on an engineering team that did OEM and aftermarket interiors.

    Regarding the progression from four to three to two engines – At the time, the largest engines were not capable of providing the thrust necessary for a wide body aircraft the size of the L1011 et al to fly on two engines. The drive to fewer engines was a balance between getting the airplane in the air, efficiency and range. Also FAA regulations at the time said that an airplane couldn’t be more than one hour away from an airport at one engine out speed. It also had to be able to take off with one engine out. So more engines were required to meet these regulatory requirements. This also means that today’s twin jets are 100% over powered, they can take off on one engine, where a 1970s 747 was only 25% over powered, it had to take off on three engines.

    As engines got bigger and more reliable, the FAA came up with ETOPS – Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards, a rule which permits twin engine aircraft to fly routes which, at some point, are more than 60 minutes flying time away from the nearest airport suitable for emergency landing. This furthers the trend towards twin engine airplanes. The only reason for using more than two for larger airplanes – 747, A380, etc is for larger gross weights and longer ranges. The ranges of the DC-10 and L1011 are barely cross continent, and much less than the ranges of today’s twin jets like the 777 ( 5500-8500 miles) and 787 (7600-9200 miles).

    The drive to twin jets, both narrow and wide body is more a function of engine technology and aero advancements than anything else. Just look at the shape of the 787’s potato chip wing with winglets compared to a 707.

    Also to address some of the comments –

    All jet airplanes from the 707 and DC8 on, fly at around mach .8. Why mach .8? That’s the right balance between speed and efficiency, kinda like the faster you drive, the worse your gas mileage. Drag increases as the square of velocity. So the older jets are not appreciably slower or faster than their modern counterparts. Today’s flight times are more a function of our crowded skies and airports than the airplane’s ability to fly between two points as fast as possible. That’s why even with favorable winds, you often have to slow down or circle to wait for your turn to land instead of arriving early.

    All of the Boeing narrow body airplanes from the 707 to the most modern 737 MAX share the same fuselage cross section, any change in width is purely a function of the interior side wall design and seat design.

    Eatch airline chooses their seat manufacturer and the row spacing (also called seat pitch). So leg room is a function of the airlines desire to squeeze more rows and revenue from the same amount of space.

    I still loved your article as I miss the old pre-deregulation days of flying. When people didn’t think that tube tops, shorts and flip flops were suitable travel attire.

    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      Regarding your last point — I can’t bring myself to wear shorts on a plane. And when I fly international I wear a tie. Crazy, huh?

  19. AvatarDirtRoads

    Lots of hangar flying here, surprised me. I’ve been a certified aircraft mechanic (otherwise known as a knuckle-dragging wrench) for nearly 40 years (although now I work an FAA desk), and a pilot. Favorite plane is the 747, and sorry BTSR there aint no Airbus product I like, not even the A380 and I was at the Toulouse factory several times while they were building it. Had the VIP tour of the factory when FedEx had 10 on order with options for 10 more. Got a pic of me with MSN 001 behind me and a couple tiny avionics guys working on a comm antenna on top of it.

    But the 747, more specifically the -400 variant, inspired me.

    Worked on the DreamLifter variant, where they chopped the fuselage behind door 1 (literally with a circular saw), extended it 10 feet, put a pressure bulkhead behind door 1 along with a 24 foot diameter tube, added 5 feet of vertical to the tail and a swing tail on it.

    I have lots of aircraft stories over the years from GA to the airlines… Oh and Jack, next time you’re looking at a big Douglas, look for the center landing gear. That assures you it’s an 11. 🙂


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