photograph of Macpherson Smith’s team

Following the rapid advance of aircraft technology during the First World War, aviators continued to push the boundaries of aircraft performance and endurance throughout the 1920s. By 1924, there were no fewer than six teams competing for the recognition of being the first to complete a round the world trip by air.

On 24 March 1924, a three-man British team was the first to set off on the attempt, led by Squadron Leader Archibald Stuart-MacLaren accompanied by flying officer William Noble Plenderleith and flight engineer Sergeant W H Andrews.

They took off on board their Vickers Vulture amphibious biplane with its single Napier Lion engine and wooden hull from the south coast of England. The flight was supported by Shell Aviation. The company was in the process of rolling out a global refuelling network and so was well placed to provide fuel and oil at each stop on the planned 23,000-mile journey.

The first stages of the trip were afflicted by bad weather and technical problems. By the time the team had reached India their aircraft had needed two replacement engines. But worse was to come, for the airframe was destroyed on take-off at Akyab Island in Burma.

In an act of great charity and collaboration, characteristic of many early aviators, who appreciated the dangers their fellow pioneers faced, the competing US team arranged for the delivery of a replacement aircraft from Tokyo to Akyab, enabling Stuart-MacLaren and his team to continue with their record-breaking attempt. They reached Hong Kong on 30 June, but disaster struck when on 4 August, heavy fog at Commander Islands in the Bering Sea off the coast of eastern Russia forced a sea landing that badly damaged the second Vulture.

The three intrepid aviators were rescued after beaching the aircraft and later learnt that their American rivals had become the first to achieve the feat of circumnavigating the world by air, landing in Seattle on the US west coast on 28 September 1924.

Despite the challenges they faced Stuart-MacLaren and his team had carried on until it was impossible for them to go further, learning a vast amount about the challenges of long distance flight in the process. The hardships they faced would be almost impossible for today’s air crews to imagine, but in typical understated fashion Stuart-Maclaren said of the attempt: “It was just a busman’s holiday, taken as one would take hold of a bicycle and go on an ordinary journey.”

Shell continued with its work to establish a global refuelling infrastructure throughout the 1920s and 1930s, helping to develop the safe, efficient refuelling network that provides the backbone of today’s global aviation industry.

Today round the world tickets are commonplace but the challenge has moved on to that of flying sustainably. In the same spirit of collaboration that drove the first aviator as they strove to fly further, higher and faster, Shell Aviation believes the whole aviation sector can come together, acting as pioneers together to accelerate progress towards net-zero emissions.

Sources:

Website BBC: ‘Attempted flight round the world 1924’, http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/CuOnyI1EQcW1s8sK6dg4Ag
Website New Forest Knowledge: ‘Around the World Flight Attempt in 1924’, https://nfknowledge.org/contributions/around-the-world-flight-attempt-in-1924/#map=10/-1.31/NaN/0/24:0:0.6|39:1:1|40:1:1
Shell Aviation News, 1939.
Shell historical archives.

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