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The History of Delta Air Lines and Its TriStar Fleet

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As the oldest existing passenger airline, Delta itself traces its roots to 1925, when, in initial form, it operated crop dusting services as Huff Daland Dusters with the Petrel 31. Nicknamed the “Puffer,” it was the first agricultural airplane specifically designed to protect the cotton fields of the southern United States against the boll weevil.

Independence and a Delta Air Service name three years later placed the fledgling concern on the threshold of gradual growth.

A meager, four-destination route network enabled it to serve Dallas, Shreveport, Monroe, and Jackson as of June 17, 1929.

Shedding its farm image a decade later, it acquired Lockheed L-10A Electra and Douglas DC-3 cabin airliners, facilitating service after a route award to Savannah, Knoxville, and Cincinnati, and from Chicago to Miami in 1946, albeit via these cities with an additional touchdown in Charleston.

Even larger, faster, and more advanced quad-engine piston liners improved its image, the Douglas DC-4 replacing the DC-3 on the Midwest-Florida run, the DC-6 replacing the DC-4 in December of 1948, and the DC-7 replacing it on April 1, 1954.

Its coverage significantly increased four years later, on May 1, when it merged with Chicago and Southern.

Delta entered the jet age on September 18, 1959 with the Douglas DC-8-10 and this was followed less than a year later with the Convair CV-880 on short- to medium-range sectors. Despite the speed advantage achieved with its Rolls Royce Conway engines, it was both ear-shattering and fuel-thirsty.

A southern route authority, granted in 1962, elevated Delta to transcontinental carrier status, enabling it to operate from Dallas to Los Angeles and San Francisco. Other service expansions included those from Atlanta to Jacksonville and Orlando and those to Phoenix and Las Vegas. Like Eastern, however, it remained a primarily East Coast airline.

Too large and offering more range than necessary, the DC-8 and CV-880 were replaced by the Douglas DC-9 twin-jet in 1965 on short-range, low-capacity US domestic sectors.

The carrier’s widebody era dawned at the beginning of the next decade with the Boeing 747-100 in 1970, the McDonnell-Douglas DC-10-10 two years later to provide needed capacity during the Lockheed L-1011 delivery delays, and the TriStar itself.

Acquiring Northeast Airlines on August 1, 1972 to obtain its much-demanded sun routes, it acquired Boeing 727-100 tri-jets and was able to inaugurate service from Montreal and Boston to Miami and count Bermuda and Nassau and Freeport in the Bahamas in its network.

Operating from an Atlanta hub, with secondary traffic centers in Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Fort Lauderdale, Memphis, New Orleans, New York, and Tampa a decade later, Delta had expanded into the third-largest carrier, transporting 34.7 million passengers in 1979 and operating 1,300 daily flights to 80 destinations in the US, Canada, Bermuda, the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, the United Kingdom, and West Germany. Its slogan, appropriately, was “Delta is ready when you are.”

Its growth, accelerated with purchases of Pan Am’s European routes and Western Airlines, became exponential. As evidenced by the voluminous, 433-page July 1, 1988 edition of its system timetable, it operated more than 2,200 departures with some 380 aircraft to 156 destinations in 42 US states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, and 11 foreign countries, including Canada, Bermuda, the Bahamas, Mexico, Ireland, Great Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, principally from its Atlanta, Cincinnati, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake City hubs.

A considerably mixed Boeing, Lockheed, and McDonnell-Douglas fleet encompassed 727-200s (12 first class and 136 coach passengers), DC-9-30s (12F and 86Y), 737-200s (either 12F and 95Y or 8F and 107Y), DC-10-10s (36F and 248Y), L-1011-1s, -250s, and -500s (which featured several configurations, including 32F and 270Y, 12F, 54C, and 203Y, 12F, 40C, and 189Y, and 18F, 64C, and 140Y), MD-88s (14F and 128Y), 737-300s (8F and 120Y), 757-200s (16F and 171Y), 767-200s (18F and 186Y), 767-300s (24F and 230Y), and DC-8-71s (18F and 194Y).

Whereas the emphasis had once been on fleet standardization and a minimum number of aircraft types to reduce crew training, maintenance, and spare parts inventories, the then-emerging megacarriers, such as Delta, which, by definition, served every route length and density, from the 100-mile feeder sector to the transcontinental and intercontinental high-capacity journey, necessitated a broad range of types and versions, since one integrated airline effectively had to do the job of many: commuter, large regional, US national, major, and megacarrier.

As a result, four large US regionals, operating as the Delta Connection, collectively offered 3,900 daily departures to 240 cities over and above Delta mainline flights and included Atlantic Southeast Airlines with DHC-7s, SD3-60s, EMB-120s, and EMB-110s, Business Express with F.27s, SD3-60s, S-340s, and B1900s), Comair with S-340s, Fairchild Swearingen Metros, and EMB-110s, and Skywest with EMB-120s and Swearingen Metros as this time.

Having been the world’s largest TriStar operator, with three versions and two sub-variants, Delta, considering it the “queen of the fleet,” placed its initial order for 24 L-1011-s in 1968 to supplement its existing DC-8s, yet offer increased, widebody comfort and quieter, more fuel efficient high bypass ratio turbofans, once advertising, “The magnificent $18 million TriStar, newest member of the Delta Air Lines wide-ride fleet.” It left most of its other US carrier competitors, including American, Continental, National, Northwest, United, and Western, to order the competing DC-10-10.

Forced to intermittently operate five of the McDonnell-Douglas counter parts because of the Rolls Royce bankruptcy program cessation, it ultimately sold them to United, although they were leased back between 1972 and 1975. It also deployed 747-100s on its transcontinental routes prior to that. Their capacity, in the event, eclipsed demand.

Its first L-1011-1, registered N701DA, was configured for 50 first and 200 coach passengers. But it was just the beginning of a history with a type that would prove synonymous with the Atlanta-based carrier, with 40 more acquired between 1973 and 1983.

Because its route system predominantly consisted of short- to medium-range sectors, it was airborne for about two hours at a time, connecting cities less than 1,000 miles apart.

Exceeding the range of its first transatlantic route award, from Atlanta to London-Gatwick, it was supplemented by two L-1011-100s leased from TWA, and these were eventually also deployed to Frankfurt and Tokyo.

In 1980, it took delivery of three truly intercontinental L-1011-500s.

A second-hand TriStar acquisition program proved extensive. Fourteen L-1011-500s (six from Air Canada, three from Pan Am, and five from United) were purchased between 1984 and 1992 and ten L-1011-1s were acquired from Eastern between 1991 and 1992.

Aside from leasing two L-1011-200s powered by RB.211-524B engines, it modified one L-1011-1 to -200 standard and the remaining six to -250 configurations, enabling each to operate longer-range sectors.

Instrumental in serving the European transatlantic routes it acquired from Pan Am, with up to 80 daily flights in the summer of 1992, the type, in its -500 guise, regularly made the 5,074-mile Anchorage-Hong Kong trans-Pacific crossing, its longest.

Although budgetary constraints precluded Lockheed from offering what could have been the definitive replacement in the form of the stretched L-1011-400, the type continued to ply Delta’s route system until only about 30 daily flights counted for TriStar service by the end of 2000, progressive replacements having taken form as the Boeing 767-200, -300, and -400 and the MD-11, perhaps McDonnell-Douglas’s ultimate triumph over Lockheed.

First delivered in November of 1979, aircraft N728DA, an L-1011-1, operated Delta’s last scheduled flight, from Atlanta to Orlando and return, on July 31, 2001, receiving a double water cannon salute after touchdown on Georgia soil. It had flown almost 31,000 flight cycles, 66,000 hours, and more than 27 million miles during its career.

The 70 TriStars of all versions that Delta had eventually operated during more than a quarter of a century represented 30 percent of Lockheed’s total production run.

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