Originally designed as a civilian airliner in the 1960’s the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar later become a vital asset to the Royal Air Force transport fleet. March 2014 brings to an end the RAF service of the famous ‘trijet’.


In the late 1960’s American Airlines released a specification for a wide-body airliner to fly their medium to long-haul routes. At the time the Boeing 747 was the chosen candidate for such flights but American Airlines needed something smaller with a shorter minimum runway length requirement. Two key manufactures provided proposals for a small wide-body aircraft to the airline; McDonnell Douglas offered the DC-10 and Lockheed the L-1011 Tristar. Despite significant changes in the original specification causing design adjustments, including the addition of a third engine, both manufacturers delivered their proposals and, eventually, American Airlines awarded McDonnell Douglas the contract.

Not to be beaten, Lockheed continued development of the TriStar and on 17th November 1970 the maiden flight of the L-1011 TriStar prototype took place. The aircraft featured an advanced auto-pilot system and became the first wide-body airliner to receive FAA certification for a Cat III auto-land system, allowing an automated landing in poor visibility conditions. Less than two years after it’s maiden flight the first aircraft was delivered to Eastern Airlines in April 1972. The TriStar then proceeded to have a very successful civilian career in the fleets of over 60 operators including British Airways, Air France, Pan America, Delta Airlines and Cathy Pacific, but the Tristar still had more to offer…

Royal Air Force Service

With the RAF Victor fleet quickly reaching the end of it’s fatigue life due to the Falklands War and the resulting air bridge, it was decided that several modified Lockheed L-1011 TriStars would fulfill the requirements of current operations. Six reasonably low hours ‘500’ series airframes were acquired from British Airways in 1982 and Marshall Aerospace were contracted to complete a military conversion on the aircraft. Across two variants, the conversion allowed the ability to perform air to air refueling, large freight/cargo transportation and also continue its designed purpose as a passenger airliner.

For all six of the airframes the conversion involved installing under floor fuel tanks that ultimately increased their fuel capacity from the standard 95,800kgs to 139,700kgs. A dual centerline ‘hose and drogue’ system was then installed to deliver fuel, with a CCTV camera to visually monitor refueling from the cockpit. Two of the six aircraft only had this stage of the conversion completed and were designated the K1. The remaining four aircraft progressed to have cargo doors installed allowing large freight to be loaded within the jet, whilst retaining the option to carry a full cargo/passenger configuration or mix of both cargo and passenger if operations required, these aircraft were designated the KC1.

Later, in 1984, three additional aircraft were purchased from Pan Am however these aircraft were not put through the military conversion program and remained relatively unchanged. Two airframes were designated C2 with the remaining single aircraft being designated as a C2A, due to the additional military avionics that had been installed.

Throughout it’s military service the TriStar saw action in multiple conflicts with the first occurring only a matter of years after delivery during the 1991 Gulf War. On 16th January 1991 the first TriStar K1 arrived at Marshalls Cambridge where throughout the night it was painted in the “Desert Pink” camouflage scheme, the following day sporting it’s new look the aircraft immediately departed to support operations in the Persian Gulf. The next conflict support role was during the 1999 Kosovo War and then ‘Operation Vertas’ (Afghanistan) in 2001. Operation Vertas was quickly followed by ‘Operation Telic’ in Iraq during 2003. More recently in 2011, the TriStar delivered tanker support for the RAF aircraft patrolling the Libyan no-fly zone. Up until retirement, 216 Squadron continued to provide support to on-going operations in the Afghanistan region.

The on-going support to operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan regularly placed the TriStar in high threat environments and in 2005 several layers of armour plating were installed throughout the flight deck of the aircraft to prevent small arms fire penetration. A sophisticated Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasures (LAIRCM) defensive aid suite was also added to the C2 and KC1 to detect airborne threats to the aircraft. The suite became a mandatory requirement for flying into and out of theatre locations. During the defense upgrade process the exterior also received a facelift, with a new gloss gray paint scheme being applied, replacing the previous white scheme. The LAIRCM defensive aid suite was later added to the TriStars replacement, the A330 Voyager prior to their delivery.

In 2006 a £22 million modernisation contract was awarded to Marshall Aerospace under the project name ‘Military Requirements (MMR) Avionics Upgrade’. Amongst the avionic, navigation and flight management system upgrades the project also involved the installation of a new ‘glass’ cockpit into the TriStar to bring the systems together. In 2007 the trial aircraft (ZD949) was delivered to Cambridge, with it’s first post upgrade flight taking place in early 2010. In total 100 hours of test flights took place with an expected operational delivery date of Spring 2011, however in October 2010 the Strategic Defence and Security Review placed an out of service date (OSD) of 2013 on the TriStar and ultimately the MMR project was cancelled. With the huge costs required to either return ZD949 to it’s pre-upgrade state or finish the conversion and train crew, ZD949 remained at Cambridge alongside ZE706 (which was at Cambridge as a spares asset) and both aircraft were eventually salvaged for spares reducing 216 Squadrons fleet to seven aircraft.

With many delays occurring in the delivery of the TriStar’s replacement, the A330 Voyager, the OSD of the TriStar fleet was later extended to March 2014. Retirement of the L-1011 began in February 2014 with the first aircraft being delivered to Air Salvage International (ASI) at Cotswold Airport, where eventually it will be parted for scrap. 12th March 2014 saw the next aircraft retirement with ZE705 being delivered to GJD Services at Bruntingthorpe Aerodrome and ZD953 a week later, once again these airframes will be scrapped.

A disbandment parade started the official drawdown proceedings on 21st March 2014 with attendance from the Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Andrew Pulford. The parade, which took place within the ‘AirTanker Hub’ hangar at RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, marks the end of 216 Squadron after 96 years of service, 30 of which whilst operating the TriStar.

The final operational sortie of the TriStar took place on 24th March 2014 in front of many enthusiasts and members of the media. Departing their home base of RAF Brize Norton at 10:30L with media and enthusiasts onboard, Fagin 11 (ZD948) and Fagin 12 (ZD950) flew in formation to Air to Air Refueling Area 8 where they were joined by four Typhoons and a single Tornado to off-load their fuel payload for the final time. Once complete, Fagin 12 headed home while Fagin 11 proceeded to carry out flypasts at Derby and Cambridge airfields before touching down at RAF Brize Norton for the very last time.

The remaining four aircraft at RAF Brize Norton (ZD948, ZD950, ZD951 and ZE705) have also been purchased by GJD Services at Bruntingthorpe and are scheduled to be delivered on 25th March 2014. Like the previously retired TriStars they will be parted for scrap unless circumstances change.



Previous Operator

Final Location

ZD948 TriStar KC1 British Airways Bruntingthorpe
ZD949 TriStar K1 British Airways Cambridge
ZD950 TriStar KC1 British Airways Bruntingthorpe
ZD951 TriStar K1 British Airways Bruntingthorpe
ZD952 TriStar KC1 British Airways Cotswold Airport
ZD953 TriStar KC1 British Airways Bruntingthorpe
ZE704 TriStar C2 Pan Am Bruntingthorpe
ZE705 TriStar C2 Pan Am Bruntingthorpe
ZE706 TriStar C2A Pan Am Cambridge


The Future

The future of the UK’s passenger and air-to-air capabilities now falls in hands of the AirTanker consortium who were awarded the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA) contract in December 2008. Three years later, in December 2011, the first aircraft was delivered to RAF Brize Norton and of the 14 aircraft scheduled, seven have been delivered to date.

10 Squadron were reformed at RAF Brize Norton in 2012 as the first squadron to operate the Voyager and 101 Squadron were reallocated as a Voyager squadron immediately after the Vickers VC-10 retirement in September 2013. Sadly for the history that 216 Squadron carries, there are no plans to re-assign the squadron and it has been disbanded.

Operating under a Private Finance Initiative (PFI) the AirTanker consortium is made up by five of the leading aerospace companies; Airbus, Babcock, Cobham, Thales and Rolls-Royce who together will provide the Royal Air Force with air-to-air refueling, transport and aero medical capabilities using their A330 Voyager aircraft through until at least 2035.

Of the 36 pilots assigned to 216 Squadron around a third are converting to the Voyager type, a third being transfered to other types within the RAF and the remaining pilots retiring to civilian airlines.

After 32 years of loyal military service ‘Timmy’ the TriStar has bowed out gracefully from the RAFs transport fleet, with only a few civilian operators still flying the L-1011 TriStar it could have been the final time that we see this much loved type flying in the UK.