Primary Sources 50 stories from 50 years of the Archives

Shell's aviation spirit

Australia's pioneer aviators were men and women with adventurous, entrepreneurial spirits. Their barnstorming tours of the countryside drew large crowds and their achievements made them heroes of the day.

Keen to associate its brand with these aviators and their gallant feats, the Shell Company sponsored many of the record-breaking flights and airshows of the inter-war years.

In February 1917, 22-year-old Basil Watson brought the first airmail from Mount Gambier to Melbourne. Flying a single-seater biplane which he had built himself, Watson's journey took 13 days, with bad weather, mechanical problems and public demand for flying displays en route all causing delays. Shell supplied Watson with Benzine aviation fuel and designed a souvenir paper parachute to celebrate the flight.

The intention, it seems, was for Watson to release the souvenirs from his biplane on a subsequent commemorative flight, however this plan went tragically astray. One month after his flight from Mount Gambier, Watson was killed when his plane broke up whilst he was giving a flying display over Point Cook.

In May 1930 Amy Johnson landed in Darwin after flying solo from England, the first female pilot to complete the journey. Once again the Shell Company was there to welcome her and refuel her Gypsy Moth with its Benzine fuel. However Shell was not the only company seeking to share Miss Johnson's limelight and did not receive the portion of reflected glory it anticipated:

I am hoping, for Miss Johnson's sake, that she was only a pawn in the whole game and that Wakefields [lubricant suppliers], who must be declared the winners, are mainly, if not entirely, responsible for her gross discourtesy to our Company … I am personally most hurt that, as I have said, the Shell Company has had no acknowledgement whatsoever (quite apart from any advertising considerations) of the very real service which they gave her. If other pilots and other airmen adopted the same manner, I for one would feel that Aviation was not worth the candle.

Oswald Darch, General Manager, Shell Company of Australia, to W. Hill, Shell Company London, 26 June 1930

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