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On the morning of 16 August 1989, sharp-eyed onlookers might have noticed something different about the Qantas Boeing 747-400 preparing for take-off at London’s Heathrow Airport. Not only was the jumbo jet towed to the runway threshold, instead of taxiing under its own power, but it also had its tanks topped up when it reached the runway. It was clear that this was no normal London-Sydney flight by the Australian flag carrier.

Typically, scheduled UK-Australia flights stop midway, either in the Middle East or in Southeast Asia. The 747, named City of Canberra, on its delivery flight from the manufacturer, was a record-breaker in the making, with Qantas seeking to operate the world’s longest non-stop flight with a commercial airliner.

With just two cabin crew, 16 passengers and four senior Qantas pilots, the aircraft was not specially modified for the flight. The only concession to weight saving being the absence of heavy galley equipment. With a range of 14,800 km, the distance to Sydney looked to be a challenge. However, the aircraft’s four Rolls-Royce RB211 engines did have an advantage, they were powered with 183.5 tonnes of a special, range-maxmising, high-density fuel, developed and supplied by Shell Aviation.

The flight went without a hitch, and City of Canberra touched down at Sydney Kingsford-Smith Airport at 14.20 local time on 17 August, some 20 hours, nine minutes and 17,000kms since departing London. It had beaten the previous distance record, set by a special long-range version of the 747, by nearly 600km.

It was some achievement, and it did have a purpose. Qantas had long harboured the ambition of operating regular non-stop services between the UK and Australia. The flight paved the way for such services, which became a reality in March 2018 when the airline launched a route between Perth and London, using a Boeing 787.

The record-breaking Qantas flight took place nearly 70 years after the first flight from England to Australia. With multiple stops along the way, that inaugural flight by brothers Ross and Keith Macpherson Smith took a total of 27 days in 1919. The brothers and their crew achieved the feat in a converted Vickers Vimy bomber. Like the Qantas flight, their aircraft was powered by Rolls-Royce Engines and fuelled by Shell Aviation; just one example of the many collaborations between the engine manufacturer and Shell over the years. Today, the two are working together on the development of sustainable aviation fuel to help the aviation sector meet the challenge of flying sustainably as the world aims to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.


How a Qantas Boeing 747-438 made its first record-breaking non-stop flight from London to Sydney in 1989 (
State Library of New South Wales - - :~:text=Ross and Keith Smith set,in less than 30 days.
R. van Egmond and A. Westra, Shell and aviation. The story of more than a century of collaboration. Shell International B.V., 2019, p. 83.
Shell historical archives.

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