KLM takes to the air
Monday 17 May 1920 marked the first commercial flight of KLM, the world’s oldest airline still flying today. It was a milestone that helped herald the beginning of scheduled international airline services.
The flight, which took off from Croydon in south London, saw a DH16 biplane landing at Schiphol Airport two hours and 15 minutes later with two journalists on board and a bundle of The Times and Daily Mail newspapers. At the controls was an ex-Royal Air Force ferry pilot Henry “Jerry” Shaw (1892-1977). This likeable 28-year-old, who loved flying, would later prove to be a gifted businessman going on to found Shell’s dedicated aviation business the following year, the first by a major oil company.
The idea for launching a Dutch airline followed a successful aviation exhibition in Amsterdam in 1919. Business interest in forming an air carrier quickly followed and the exhibition organiser, Albert Plesman, himself a Dutch air force pilot, was nominated to head Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij. Literally translated this means Royal Aviation Company, as the company was granted Royal status by Queen Wilhelmina that year. Plesman went on to lead KLM for 35 years as it launched services to Asia, going from strength to strength, despite the turmoil brought by the Second World War.
With launch capital of 1.2 million Dutch Guilders, KLM’s first flight used an aircraft leased from British airline Air Transport and Travel as KLM did not yet have its own aircraft or its own pilots.
The DH16 was a converted First World War light bomber with a wider fuselage accommodating an enclosed cabin seating four passengers and an open cockpit for the pilot. Jerry Shaw was used to the uncomfortable conditions of flying exposed like this, but in very cold weather, a small stove was installed in the cabin for the comfort of the passengers.
From these modest beginnings, KLM has grown to be one of the world’s most famous airlines, a multi-billion-dollar global enterprise and a pioneer of sustainable flight.
The flight also marked the start of an ongoing collaboration between the airline and Shell Aviation. As KLM started to open up routes to Asia in the 1930s, Shell was expanding its refuelling network across the world. This meant that Shell was able to provide fuel, lubricants and services at all 16 stops on KLM’s five-day flight from Amsterdam to the Indonesian capital Jakarta (then Batavia).
This partnership continues to this day as the two companies work together to cut emissions and meet climate targets by using sustainable aviation fuel. Synthetic kerosene, produced by removing carbon from the atmosphere and combining it with green hydrogen made from water and renewable energy, is viewed as one of the most promising longer-term options for sustainable fuel. Still in its infancy, this technology took a significant step forward on 8 February 2021 when, in a world-first, a KLM Boeing 737 flew a scheduled passenger service from Amsterdam to Madrid fuelled with 500 litres of certified synthetic kerosene produced by Shell and mixed with regular jet fuel.
R. van Egmond and A. Westra, Shell and aviation. The story of more than a century of collaboration. Shell International B.V., 2019, p. 22-23. 64-73.
H. Scanlan, Winged Shell. Oil Company Aviators 1927-1987, p. 11-21. 32-52
World first in the Netherlands by KLM, Shell and Dutch ministry for Infrastructure and Water Management: first passenger flight performed with sustainable synthetic kerosene
Shell historical archives.