Supplying fuel to all corners of the earth
Setting up the fuelling infrastructure to support international airports and popular travel routes has been a major task for the aviation industry and its fuel suppliers over the past 100 years. But supplying fuel to more remote locations to ensure that isolated communities can benefit from aviation presents a whole different set of challenges.
Three remote towns, Carolina in the depths of Brazil, Jiwani in the far west of Pakistan and Kuujjuaq (formerly known as Port Chimo) in the far north of Quebec have little in common on the surface. But all rely on aviation to keep them connected to the outside world and all are examples of the lengths Shell Aviation went to in the 1960s and 1970s to bring fuel supplies to remote communities.
The challenge of transporting aviation fuel from the Brazilian port of Belem to Carolina Airport, deep in the interior of the country was immense. The dense jungle made an overland delivery impossible, meaning river transport was the only option. The trip began with the fuel, packed in red drums, transported up the treacherous River Tocantins. The drums had to be unloaded and reloaded up to five times to make the river barges light enough to navigate rapids on the first stage of the journey. At Maraba, the drums were transferred to smaller boats as the river narrowed. Further unloading and reloading was needed as the fuel continued its journey to Carolina’s airfield, with a round trip taking up to seven months depending on the state of the river.
Keeping Jiwani, a small fishing village in Pakistan 550 miles from Karachi, supplied was no less arduous. Although the airport was seldom used by airliners, it was an essential staging point for smaller, more limited range aircraft transiting from Europe to Asia. For Jiwani, the transport solution saw so-called “country craft” boats bringing aviation fuel drums by sea from Karachi. These boats were run aground at high tide in Jiwani and the drums offloaded across planks to the shore. The round trip took 8-10 days, except in the four months during the monsoon when deliveries were usually impossible.
But of the three, Kuujjuaq in northern Canada presented perhaps the biggest challenge, with a port only accessible four months of the year, due to arctic ice. Ensuring fuel supplies was however, vital, with the town acting as the transportation hub for communities across a large part of the Canadian Arctic.
In 1977, Shell devised and implemented a special shipping solution to transport fuel to Kuujjuaq, a major logistical exercise requiring a total of five ships and boats. Two ships transported the fuel north from Montreal, a huge coastal tanker the Edouard Simard, and the smaller tanker, the MV Arctic Trader. The tankers left Montreal in time to arrive between the highest tides in late July and before the sea froze, making navigation impossible. After making deliveries along the way, the Edouard Simard would weigh anchor in the bay at the mouth of the Koksoak river. The smaller MV Arctic Trader then travelled 30 miles upriver, at high tide, to Elbow Island, close to Kuujjuaq. Here, a flat-bottomed barge was filled with fuel from the MV Arctic Trader and then pushed by two sea tugs to Kuujjuaq. On an average day, the barge could make five trips, timed with the tides. In 1977, this operation delivered 1.7 million gallons of fuel to Kuujjuaq, a single shipment that had to last all winter, until the next delivery was possible the following summer.
Today, aviation continues to play an important role in connecting isolated communities. For example, over 1,000 communities in northern Russia and over 200 in Alaska and Canada have no links by road, relying on aviation for access to essential medical services, education and trade.1
Shell Aviation News, 1959, p. 222.
Shell Aviation News, 1960, p. 214.
Shell Aviation News, 1977, p. 204-212.
Shell historical archives.