Batten, Jean

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Jean Batten

The daring solo flights of New Zealand's Jean Gardner Batten (1909–1982) were widely chronicled in the world's newspapers and newsreels during the 1930s. She set several aviation records for long-distance travel between Britain and Australasia, a trip of more than 14,000 miles that took her over three-fifths of the Earth's entire circumference. Along with Amelia Earhart (1897–1937), who disappeared forever during one such flight, Batten was one of the era's celebrity aviatrixes whose exploits captured the public imagination.

Batten was born on September 15, 1909, in Rotorua, a spa town on the North Island of New Zealand. Her father Fred was a dentist, while Batten's mother Ellen had an independent, feminist streak that was passed on to the family's only daughter. When Batten was four, the family moved to Auckland, New Zealand's largest city, where she attended private schools. Her parents' marriage was a troubled one, riven by financial worries and Fred's adultery, and they divorced in 1920, the year she turned eleven. Batten stayed with Ellen, while her brothers lived with their father. Eventually the two sides of the family would cease all contact with one another.

Determined to Fly

Batten's mother encouraged her daughter's talents and ambitions, and there was talk of her pursuing a career as a concert pianist. But in 1928, Fred took his attractive, spirited daughter along to an evening outing in Auckland where the featured speaker was the aviator Charles Kingsford-Smith (1897–1935). "Smithy," as he was known, was one of Australia's most celebrated heroes of the era, and had achieved several firsts in Australasian aviation in its early years. He was also the first pilot to fly from Australia to the United States by way of the challenging eastward route.

Batten charmed Smithy when she was introduced to him after dinner, and told him that she, too, was going to become a pilot. Smithy gave her two pieces of advice: don't fly at night, and don't attempt to break any male flier's records. Both of these cautions, she later joked, she willfully ignored. Her father was adamantly opposed to her ambition, with one reason being that flying was quite dangerous at the time. Engine failure and other technical issues often led to fatal crashes, and it was also considered a rather unsuitable pursuit for a young woman from a middle-class family. Batten's mother, not surprisingly, took the contrary view and encouraged her daughter's aspirations. In 1930, the two women moved to London, England, where Batten's brother John had found some minor success as a film actor.

Batten signed up for flying lessons at the London Aero Club. She often asserted her goal to fellow club members, almost all of whom were men: she planned to become the first person to fly between England and New Zealand. In December of 1931, she qualified for her private pilot's license, and within a year had received a commercial license as well. To round out her education in aviation, she took courses in plane mechanics and maintenance, and impressed the men of the Club with her willingness to get her hands dirty in the grittier side work that flying entailed.

Bought a Prince's Former Plane

Batten needed her own plane in order to fulfill her dream, however. She sold her prized piano to raise some funds, and managed to secure the rest thanks to the devotion of one of her growing legion of male admirers. A scion of a wealthy textile-merchant family helped her obtain a Gipsy Moth biplane that had changed hands several times after its original owner, the Prince of Wales, first flew it a decade earlier. The Gipsy Moth was a lightweight, open-air plane that could seat two. Built by the de Havilland Aircraft Company in Hertfordshire, England, it was one of the more affordable and reliable planes of the era, and was used in a number of record-setting flights.

Batten first set out to best the record of Amy Johnson (1903–1941), a college-educated London secretary who had taken up flying as a hobby. In May of 1930, Johnson had become the first woman to fly from England to Australia, and completed her 10,500-mile trip in 20 days, with several stops for refueling and rest along the way. Such trips were both arduous and long; navigation instruments at the time were primitive, and the top cruising speed of the Gipsy Moth-which Johnson also flew-was just 80 miles an hour.

In April of 1933, Batten departed England and made her way across Europe. After flying through sandstorms, however, she was forced to come down in the Balochistan region of southwest Pakistan. The landing damaged her propeller, but "good-tempered Baluch villagers brought her by camel to Bela," the Times of London reported on April 15. The overseas correspondent further noted the aviatrix, as women pilots were called in this era, then hitched an overnight ride in a truck to get across the Hubb Mountains to Karachi, where she planned to pick up a new propeller and find a pilot who would fly her back to her plane.

Just how dangerous such flights were at the time, before pilots used the two-way radio communication that became standard in aviation after World War II, was illustrated in the same London Times article. Its correspondent mentioned a Captain Lancaster, of whom "no news has been received." The story noted that Lancaster, flying from England to Cape Town, South Africa, was last seen taking off near a Sahara Desert oasis en route to Niger. His wrecked plane, and mummified remains, were not discovered until 1962.

Set New Women's Record

Batten's second attempt was also cut short by technical troubles. After inexplicably running out of fuel, she was forced to make an emergency landing near Rome, which once again damaged her plane and quashed her hope of beating Amy Johnson's record. Though these exploits had been unsuccessful, they did serve to make Batten famous for trying. A year after her first try, Batten left England on May 8, 1934, and made her final landing in Darwin, a city at the northern tip of Australia, on May 23. Clocking in a time of 14 days and 22 hours, she beat Johnson's flight by a stunning four and a half days.

Greeted by crowds in Darwin, Batten returned to her native New Zealand by boat, and was honored there, too. She made a six-week tour of the country, speaking about her feat to rapt audiences, before flying back to England. She still planned, however, to make the England-New Zealand flight, which was a longer distance to cover and added more than 3,700 extra miles to the flight plan. She managed to buy another British-built plane, a Percival Gull that had actual brakes for landing as well as a second fuel tank, with the income she earned from speaking engagements. Endorsement deals also provided some extra cash, including a contract to appear in advertising for Castrol motor oil. Blessed with model-like good looks, Batten often packed evening dresses in her small carry-on for the formal receptions held in her honor, and when photojournalists rushed to greet her plane on its much-anticipated landings, she emerged from what had undoubtedly been a grueling voyage wearing makeup and a glamorous white suit.

Batten planned to test her new plane's long-distance capability with a jaunt from West Africa to Brazil. She hoped to break the England-to-Brazil record set by a Scottish aviator, Jim Mollison, of 85 hours and 20 minutes back in 1933. Batten left England, and on November 11, 1935, flew from France to Casablanca, Morocco, inadvertently setting a new speed record for that route of under ten hours. She then headed south to Senegal, her African departure point, and encountered terrible weather as she crossed the Equator, which disoriented her and made her instruments difficult to read. For a time, she later said, she believed she had veered off course, but when the skies cleared she saw cargo ships, and knew she had stayed on course. She landed safely in Port Natal, Brazil, with a time of 61 hours and 15 minutes for the 5,000-mile flight, and beat Mollison's record by a full day.

Made Treacherous Crossing

Batten's fame throughout England was immense, and she was often romantically linked with a number of prominent gentlemen. Newspapers of the era dubbed her the "Garbo of the Skies" for her glamour and apparent nerves of steel. Those would be put to use once again when she finally departed for her historic England-to-Auckland flight on October 5, 1936. She landed six days later in Sydney, Australia, and was greeted by huge crowds once again.

The final leg of Batten's journey, however, would be its most perilous: the thousand-plus miles over the Tasman Sea. This body of water separated Australia and New Zealand, and had wrecked many a ship, for its proximity to Antarctica and other geographic features meant strong currents and often-violent weather. A newspaper editorial writer asserted that Batten was foolish to try it, for if something were to go amiss, it would be a costly effort to rescue her. In response, she issued a tersely worded statement. "If I go down in the sea no one must fly out and look for me," she asserted, according to the Web site New Zealand Edge. "I have chosen to make this flight, and I am confident I can make it, but I have no wish to imperil the lives of others or cause trouble or expense to my country."

Batten took off in the early morning hours of October 16, 1936, and landed safely in Auckland ten and a half hours later. Predictably, she encountered bad weather over the Tasman Sea, but had not only managed to beat the previous record on the route, set by a male aviator two years earlier, but also became the first woman ever to fly it. When she landed at Auckland, a traffic jam stretched some 13 miles as scores of New Zealanders flocked to greet her. Her feat also included a new record set for an England-to-New Zealand flight, a distance of more than 14,200 miles.

Her Final Flight

Feted across New Zealand, Batten was honored by her native land's indigenous Maori community, who named her Hine-o-te-Rangi, or Daughter of the Skies, in a tribal ceremony. She spent several months there, and flew back to England in October of 1937, breaking the solo record from Australia to England by clocking in a time of five days and 18 hours. The London Times account of her arrival in England—once again, by enthusiastic crowds that rushed at her—also reported that a male pilot, a one Mr. Broadbent, was already trying to beat her England-to-Australia record, but had been forced to land in the Iraqi desert. There, the correspondent noted, Broadbent borrowed a donkey from the locals and rode four miles to find gasoline.

That flight would be Batten's last attempt to set an aviation record. During World War II, she helped raise funds and recruitment numbers for the Royal Air Force (RAF), but was not asked to serve as a ferry pilot for the RAF's Air Transport Auxiliary, which was the only opportunity for qualified women pilots to fly in the war effort. Her rival, Amy Johnson, was one of those ferry pilots, but died in 1941 when her plane crashed and she drowned in a Thames estuary.

Batten's end is perhaps even more tragic. She became a recluse in her later years, especially after the 1965 death of her mother, with whom she had lived in Jamaica, then in Tenerife, one of the seven Canary Islands in the Atlantic. Batten eventually settled in another Spanish-owned island territory, Majorca, where a dog bit her in 1982. The wound became infected, went untreated, and killed her. The once-celebrated aviatrix was buried in a pauper's grave on the island. Friends who corresponded with her began to worry when they had not heard from her in some time, and a cursory inquiry was launched but soon dropped. Finally, a documentary filmmaker and writer, Ian Mackersey, went to Majorca in search of her, and discovered that she had died five years earlier.

Batten's Percival Gull plane is preserved at Auckland Airport, where the international terminal is named in her honor.

Periodicals

Aviation History, January 2000.

Times (London, England), April 15, 1933; May 24, 1934; December 24, 1935; December 30, 1935; July 25, 1936; October 17, 1936; October 25, 1937; July 11, 1938; September 29, 1987.

Online

"Hine-o-te-Rangi: Daughter of the Skies," New Zealand Edge, http://www.nzedge.com/heroes/batten.html (February 19, 2006).

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