photograph of Bernstein

Setting and breaking records was a passion for the early aviators in the 1920 and 1930s. By constantly pushing the boundaries, they helped attract the interest of the public and started to change perceptions of aviation from a sport for daredevils to an industry that could bring major benefits for people all around the world.

One of those adventurers was Leipzig-born Léna Bernstein, a fearless pilot who specialised in long-distance and long-duration flying and was one of the leading female aviators of her day. Like all pilots competing for these records, Bernstein was reliant on the performance and reliability of her aircraft.

After becoming the second pilot and the first woman to fly across the Mediterranean in 1929, Bernstein set her sights on the non-stop flying record. She broke it on a circuit flown from Le Bourget Airport (the location of the famous Paris Air Show today) on 1 and 2 May 1930, remaining airborne for 35 hours, 36 minutes and 55 seconds in her high-wing Farman F192 monoplane. This remarkable feat was achieved with Shell fuel powering the single Salmson AB9 engine. It saw Bernstein break American Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 duration record, set when he had flown over the Atlantic Ocean from Long Island to Paris, staying airborne for a total of 33 and a half hours.

A notable archive photograph of Bernstein survives to this day. It shows her flying jacket and leather helmet. The signed picture includes a handwritten caption in which Bernstein pays tribute to the fuel that enabled her record-breaking flight. “Shell: every drop counts. I became well-aware of that when I fought for my duration record. Léna Bernstein.”

Shell’s early commitment to aviation saw it provide fuel and support to a number of pioneering female aviators. These included: Amy Johnson, the first female pilot to fly solo from England to Australia, in 1930; Marga Von Etzdorf, the first woman to fly solo from Berlin to Tokyo, in 1932; and Mary Bailey, on her record-breaking solo flight from London to Cape Town, in 1928. During the flight, Bailey was detained for several days in Cairo, where the authorities did not want to let her continue ‘without a man on-board’, proof that the first female pilots faced far more than just technical challenges.

Sources:

R. van Egmond and A. Westra, Shell and aviation. The story of more than a century of collaboration. Shell International B.V., 2019, p. 47.
‘Lena Bernstein’, Website Peoplepill, https://peoplepill.com/people/lena-bernstein.
Shell Aviation News, 1972.
https://www.thisdayinaviation.com/tag/the-honorable-dame-mary-bailey-cbe/
Shell historical archives.

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