It took less than a day for aviation buffs to uncover the news.
After being mothballed for 15 years in the Arizona desert, an aging jumbo jet with a unique history had been acquired by a Kansas City nonprofit organization.
In an instant, questions started flying.
Would the Lockheed L-1011 once again soar into the wild blue yonder?
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Could they come watch if it did?
And would the new owners — TriStar History and Preservation, which registered the 42-year-old craft with the Federal Aviation Administration on Dec. 31 — be giving tours of the inside?
“On New Year’s Day, we received about 20 emails from different L-1011 fans from various parts of the world — literally all over the world — asking us what we are going to do with the airplane,” said Kerry Floyd, president and co-founder of the nonprofit, which does business as TriStar Experience.
This was not just any aging airliner that fans were asking about, either.
It once was known as the Flying Hospital, a wide-body jet converted by a charity organized by evangelist Pat Robertson to provide medical relief around the world.
Plus, Lockheed made only 250 of the L-1011s. Only one still flies today, after having been modified to launch rockets while airborne.
So how about this Arizona-based plane? Will it fly again, too?
At least once, its owners hope.
TriStar History is readying it for a ferry flight in coming weeks from Tucson to Kansas City, where the old jet will take on a new role.
“We are taking aging airliners that would otherwise would be cut up for scrap and repurposing those to use for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education,” Floyd said.
The airplane, which Floyd said was “born” in September 1974, features a lower-level lounge that’s accessible via fold-out stairs. Switchback steps lead to the first-class section.
“This airplane was designed in the late 1960s — it was when they really weren’t that concerned about fuel prices,” Floyd said. “They were more concerned about moving copious amounts of people long distances in comfort.”
The airliner, powered by Rolls Royce engines, originally flew in the Pacific Southwest Airlines fleet and then for Worldways Canada. Neither company still exists.
In the mid-1990s, the nonprofit Operation Blessing International bought the plane.
In July 1995, Operation Blessing signed a contract with Lockheed to transform it into the Flying Hospital, a fully equipped, self-contained, airborne hospital, according to a news release regarding the plane’s debut on May 21, 1996.
The modifications included three surgical bays, pre- and post-op recovery areas, a laboratory, a pharmacy and a training area. The transformation and other work brought the total cost of the L-1011 to $25 million, according to the release.
The Flying Hospital traveled to 29 countries, and its medical volunteers provided more than 80,600 medical services to patients, including 3,144 surgeries on both the aircraft and at local partnering hospitals, according to Operation Blessing.
The Flying Hospital also partnered with Operation Smile during a nine-week, 18-country mission.
It was decommissioned after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks because flying had become exceedingly expensive and because of other related complexities, according to information provided by Operation Blessing.
Operation Blessing later donated the plane to Global Flight Relief, from which TriStar History acquired it. The terms were not disclosed.
The plane caught the attention of TriStar History, which was founded by Floyd and Mike Saxton in January 2013, on the premise that there’s a lack of people educating the next generation about aviation.
“We are not a museum,” Floyd said. “Our sole intent is to teach the next generation about aviation, and to do that, we are able to repurpose some of the older jetliners that are becoming available to use as a way to break through to these kids.”
When you lead kids out to a large aircraft, there’s an “Aha!” moment, Floyd said.
“Kids don’t get access to cockpits; kids don’t get access to some of the inner workings of some of these airplanes,” he said.
So when they walk up on the ground level to one these airplanes, it’s an intriguing experience for them.
“When you’re able to show them some of the systems and then set them in the cockpit and start explaining some of the systems to them, you’ll see their eyes start to get as big as a saucer,” Floyd said. “And you know that you got them hooked in to paying attention.”
The organization is focusing on programs for children between ages 8 and 14. It believes that children can be more easily influenced into considering a career in aviation at that age. By the time children get to high school, they typically have decided on a career.
The program organizers hope to attract more than just the next generation of pilots.
“We are trying to show that, depending upon where your interests are … there is a lot of different jobs that are aviation-related that require some level of STEM knowledge that are all easily attainable if they put their effort to it,” Floyd said.
TriStar History believes the plane would be ideal for its education program because of the lower-level walk-up access, classroom setting in the front and an open aft section that once housed the medical equipment.
The organization plans to keep it flyable in case it needs to be ferried in the future, but it doesn’t intend to fly it. The hope is to have the plane repainted to the vintage TWA livery colors and ready for educational programs by September.
TriStar History also owns the TWA Wings of Pride McDonnell Douglas MD-83, a British Aircraft Corp. One-Eleven and another L-1011 that’s grounded in California.
In addition to running the STEM program, the organization has applied for an operating certificate so it can support other nonprofit organizations. The operating certificate would allow it to fly the Wings of Pride plane and the BAC One-Eleven with passengers, possibly as early as this summer.
“They (the aircraft) are cool toys to look at,” Floyd said, “but they serve a purpose.”