The great trans-planet air race
In early 1919 the Commonwealth Government of Australia laid down a grand aviation challenge. The first team to fly from Great Britain to Australia - a distance of 11,000 miles - would receive a prize of £10,000.
There were rules. The aircrew had to be Australian nationals and the journey had to completed within 30 consecutive days of take off and by midnight on 31 December 1920. A total of six teams took up the challenge, in what became known as the Great Trans-Planet Air Race.
British aircraft maker Vickers entered a modified First World War Vimy bomber crewed by Captain Ross Macpherson Smith, his brother Lieutenant Keith Macpherson Smith as co-pilot, and mechanics Sergeant WH (Wally) Shiers and Sergeant JM (Jim) Bennett. The Vimy left Hounslow in west London on 12 November 1919. The Vickers team was supported by Shell, with the aircraft’s Rolls-Royce Eagle engines exclusively fuelled with Shell Aviation Spirit at the company’s fuel depots all along the route. This same combination of Vickers, Rolls-Royce and Shell had powered British aviators Alcock and Brown on the first transatlantic crossing, earlier that same year.
Flying via Rome, Cairo, Delhi and Singapore, Macpherson Smith’s team made good progress, despite becoming bogged down in Surabaya, where bamboo mats had to be deployed to make a temporary airstrip.
While much of the trip was over land, the most hazardous leg was the very final one, with a sea crossing from Indonesia to Australia. Around 180 miles off the coast of Port Darwin on 10 December 1919, they sighted the HMAS Sydney, a tiny speck in the sea below them. The ship had been specifically positioned to guide their course onto Port Darwin, but the sighting of the ship was evidence that they were on course. It was “proof of wonderfully accurate navigation on the part of the aviators”, according to the ship’s captain. The aircraft’s crew, who had no radio on board, decided to drop a ‘message in a bottle’ to the captain of the ship below, letting him know all was going well. Using string and a hastily made parachute they dropped the bottle which landed in the sea near the ship. The message read: ‘The Air, 10/12/19, Vickers Vimy, The Commander, H.M.A.S., Very glad to see you. Many thanks for looking after us. Going strong. Keith Smith, Ross Smith, Sgt. J. Bennett, Sgt. W. H. Shiers.’
The crew reached Darwin in Australia on 10 December winning the prize with two days to spare. Their achievement was all the more impressive as it took the second place team over seven months to reach Australia. But it wasn’t all straightforward for the Vickers’ crew after that. The onward journey from Darwin to Sydney took over twice as long as the flight from England, due to a split propeller and engine problems. Both Brothers were knighted in recognition of their exploits, which spawned a range of early merchandise including a board game. Shell commemorated the achievement by commissioning a special map, ‘Halfway round the world on Shell’, detailing the route taken.
In an echo of this achievement, Shell went on to provide special range-maximising, high-density fuel for a non-stop flight from London to Sydney in 1989. The world’s longest non-stop flight with a commercial airliner was achieved by a Qantas Boeing 747-400 in 20 hours, nine minutes, showing just how far aviation had come in the 70 years since the Smith brothers’ 27-day epic journey.
R. van Egmond and A. Westra, Shell and aviation. The story of more than a century of collaboration. Shell International B.V., 2019, p. 42-43.
State Library of New South Wales - https://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/stories/aviation-australia/vickers-vimy - :~:text=Ross and Keith Smith set,in less than 30 days.
Shell historical archives.