Faster fuelling for the Royal Flying Corps
The race to gain air superiority over the skies in the First World War brought about a spiral of aircraft developments as first one side and then the other sought to gain the ascendancy.
The conflict saw aerial warfare used on a large scale for the first time with both sides putting over 200,000 aeroplanes into the skies over the course of the war.1 The demands on the logistics and infrastructure to support such numbers grew as the war progressed, with the challenge of keeping more aircraft flying for longer and reducing turnaround times on the ground.
At the onset of the war, aircraft were still filled by hand from two-gallon cans to charge their 25-gallon capacity fuel tanks. But when larger aircraft with 900-gallon tanks entered service, it took 20 men a full day to fuel a single plane by hand. Shell worked to solve this problem by developing a system where the aircraft were refuelled from large storage tanks with pumps, making the process safer and crucially reducing turnaround times to get aircraft back into the skies faster. Using this system, one person could now fill a large aircraft fuel tank in under an hour.
In addition, the use of more efficient delivery systems was introduced during the war to further speed up fuel supply. Shell contributed to this effort by laying pipelines, linking the railway stations to which the fuel was delivered directly to airfields.
The development of these faster fuelling systems for the military laid the groundwork for more efficient fuelling and quicker turnaround times as civil aviation boomed after the war. In 1921, Shell installed an underground fuelling system at London’s airport, at Purley near Croydon. This in turn paved the way for the introduction of hydrant systems, which delivered fuel directly from tanks to aircraft on the apron. Such systems were rolled out as aviation expanded further in the 1950s and by 1957 Shell had installed over 100 hydrant systems globally. Hydrant systems remain the norm for major airports today. By delivering fuel quickly and safely, they help optimise turn around times for large modern aircraft, improving efficiency for airlines and providing convenience for passengers.
R. van Egmond and A. Westra, Shell and aviation. The story of more than a century of collaboration. Shell International B.V., 2019, p. 21.
P.G.A. Smith, The “SHELL” that hit Germany hardest, p. 54-55.
H. Scanlan, Winged Shell. Oil Company Aviators 1927-1987, p. 13.
Shell historical archives.
Shell launches international fuel payment card for pilots - 18 years before the world’s first credit card.