Batten, Jean Gardner (1909–1982)

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Batten, Jean Gardner (1909–1982)

New Zealander who became world famous for her aviation exploits. Born Jean Gardner Batten on September 15, 1909, in Rotorua, New Zealand; died on November 22, 1982, in Majorca, Spain; daughter ofEllen Blackmore Batten (an artist) and Frederick Harold Batten (a dental surgeon); attended secondary school in Auckland, New Zealand, where she demonstrated considerable talent as a pianist and artist.

Earned a private pilot's license (1930) and a commercial license (1932) in London; undertook a series of solo flights setting world records (1930s); set women's record on solo flight from England to India (1933); became first woman to fly from England to Australia (1934) and from Australia to England (1935); became first woman to fly across the South Atlantic Ocean from Africa to South America (1935); made the first direct flight to Auckland, New Zealand, from England, setting world record (1936) and from Australia to England with a record solo time (1937); won the U.S. Challenge Trophy (1934, 1935, 1936); won the U.S. Harmon Trophy (1935, 1936, 1937); won the Johnston Memorial Air Navigation Trophy (1935) and the Segrave Trophy (1936); awarded officer of the Brazilian Order of the Southern Cross (1935); named Commander of the British Empire (1936); given the chevalier of the French Legion of Honor (1936). Jean Batten archive established at theRoyal Air Force Museum (1972) and British Airways christened an airliner the "Jean Batten" (1981).

As the Gypsy Moth flew over the shark-infested Timor Sea on the 2,200 mile crossing from Sydney to Darwin, the engine coughed, sputtered, and died. In the eerie silence, the Moth began to glide toward the water while the pilot searched calmly through the toolchest for a hatchet. Like many small planes of the day, Jean Batten's carried no life rafts. If the plane crashed, its wing would have to be hacked off to serve as a raft. She opened and closed the throttle one last time—no response. At the last minute, a great throbbing roar shattered the silence as the engine came to life. Coaxing the plane up to 6,000 feet, Batten flew the next three hours to Kupang, on her way back to England. The first woman to make the round trip between England to Australia. Wrote Michael Ramsden:

The full significance of Jean Batten's achievements is almost impossible to grasp today, sitting in a jet, listening to stereo and trying not to eat too much. Imagine flying alone for almost six days in a wood and fabric aeroplane with one engine, no navigation-aids and only the most primitive servicing facilities, and all the time just one piston-beat away from death by shark or wild animal.

Jean Gardner Batten was born in Rotorua, New Zealand, on September 15, 1909, the year Louis Blériot made the first crossing of the English channel by air. Her girlhood was filled with excitement. Fascinated by the thermal springs around Rotorua, she and her two brothers would wait for the blasts of steam to jet upward while visiting with the Maori women who washed their clothes in the heated water. She learned to swim when she was four and soon took up basketball and tennis. Sometimes with her mother Ellen Blackmore Batten, she rode horseback on a milk-white mare; with her father Frederick, she sailed on his yacht. After he left for the front when World War I broke out in 1914, her interest in geography grew as his letters opened vistas of distant places. At ten, the flying exploits of Ross and Keith Smith caught her imagination. Her father, seeing his daughter excel at art and the piano, was certain she would

be a musician, but he was overlooking her love for speed.

Batten grew up in the golden age of aviation. The 19th century began with the railroad and ended with the automobile. The 20th-century's hallmark would be the airplane. The first planes were flimsy, unstable machines barely able to lift off the ground, but by the late 1920s air transport had become quite reliable. Flying was presented as another skill, like driving a car, that anyone could learn, and in a sense this was true; instrumentation was so rudimentary that pilots often navigated by landmarks, landing speeds were low, and people often survived crashes. Batten's childhood fascination mirrored the public's infatuation with flight.

By the time Batten was 19, women had taken up flying, though it was considered a male profession. In 1928, Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm flew from America to Australia; the following year, Batten made her first flight, with Kingsford Smith, an experience she never forgot. "Cruising about high above the Blue Mountains I ‖ felt completely at home in the air and decided that here indeed was my element."

Batten's announcement that she intended to fly met with paternal opposition. But her father's disapproval and the expense of flying lessons did not deter her; she offered to sell her piano to pay for lessons. Understanding her daughter's passion, Ellen Batten decided to accompany her to England where it would be easier to take flying lessons. They departed early in 1929 and saw the Temples of Ceylon, the Red Sea, Arabia, Vesuvius, and Gibraltar en route. Not long after reaching London, Jean appeared at the London Aeroplane Club at Stag Lane to begin flying lessons, earning her "A" license in 1930. Already dreaming of a flight from England to Australia, she went back to New Zealand to drum up funding. When this failed, Batten returned to London to earn her commercial or "B" license in 1932, which she hoped would open more doors. She studied navigation, attended lectures, and worked with mechanics. Money soon ran out, however, and she began to frequent pawn shops.

Though a logical step for aviation, her dream of linking New Zealand to England by air seemed impractical at the time. A friend agreed to lease her a Gypsy Moth in exchange for 50% of any profits made on long distance flights. But on a night flight, the plane threw a rod, and, though Batten landed safely, the event left her financially undone. Wrote Batten:

By the time all the damage was repaired and paid for I had nothing but debts to carry on with…. So I took my courage in both hands and went to see Lord Wakefield. I knew that he was interested in long-distance flights, and also that he was rich and generous. I was most intimidated when I found myself in his presence…. I explained my idea of linking up his country and my own, England and New Zealand, or at any rate, to start with, Australia. He gazed at me for sometime in silence. At last he said: "Very well. But you must use my own products. I manufacture Castrol, you know."

In April 1934, Batten bought another Gypsy Moth for the England to Australia crossing. After she made it to India, a major engine failure forced her to cancel her plans. In her second attempt, she flew to Rome but couldn't find the airport. Batten nearly lost her life landing in the first vacant spot she found—a wireless station full of antennas. Fortunately none of the wires sliced the Moth, and she escaped safely.

In flying I found the combination of the two things which meant everything to me: the intoxicating drug of speed and freedom to roam the earth.

—Jean Batten

On May 8, 1934, Batten set out for Australia a third time in a five-year-old Gypsy Moth with a cruising speed of 80 mph. Flying in an open cockpit, she used a compass, landmarks, and a map to chart her course. She made frequent stops to refuel and often had to hand pump gasoline from the auxiliary tanks to the main tanks in order to stay airborne. Exposed to the elements, she endured extreme cold over the English Channel, dust storms over the Syrian desert, and monsoons over Southeast Asia. When the tiny plane was engulfed by a storm in Rangoon, she nearly had to turn back:

The rain thundered down on to the wings of my aeroplane like millions of tiny pellets, and visibility was so bad that the wing-tips were not visible and the coastline was completely blotted out. It was like flying from day into night, and in the semi-darkness the luminous instruments glowed an eerie green from the dashboard. Very soon the open cockpit was almost flooded and my tropical flying-suit wet through.

On May 23, 1934, Batten landed in Darwin, 14 days, 22 hours, and 30 minutes after leaving London, setting a new women's record, and beating Amy Johnson 's time on the same flight by four days. Ecstatic Australians mobbed Batten. When she returned to New Zealand, the reception was also astonishing. She was welcomed by the prime minister, honored by the Maoris with a feast in Rotorua, and entertained at receptions and banquets. Using every opportunity to campaign for routine flights between New Zealand, Australia, and England, she spent the next year in New Zealand and Australia lecturing, writing articles, advertising products, and giving passenger flights, all to earn money. Now a public figure, she was shocked when news of a possible engagement made the headlines, but Batten easily came to terms with her fame.

In April 1935, she returned to England in her overhauled Gypsy Moth, a trip which included the temporary engine failure over the Timor Sea. The close call left her nervous during the next 18 days of the flight, but she finally landed safely at Croydon where she was greeted with tremendous enthusiasm by enormous crowds, the first woman to make the round trip between England and Australia. No sooner had Batten arrived than she began to arrange new flights. With the money earned during the previous year, she purchased a closed-cabin Percival Gull, planning to fly from West Africa to Brazil. Only Amy Johnson's husband, Jim Mollison, had made this solo flight across the South Atlantic, and Batten hoped to best his time of 17 hours, 40 minutes.

For the next six months, she filled out forms, applied for visas, and arranged for fuel along the route. She left London for Casablanca on November 11, 1935, and reached the city in 9¾ nonstop hours—a new record. Next she flew 1,600 miles to Thies, navigating across wild, barren country, over which her superb navigational skills stood her in good stead. She arrived in Thies to find that her fuel supplies, now in Dakar, had to be trucked in. When the Gull was finally fueled up, the plane was so overloaded that she had to jettison water drums, the tool kit, and spare engine parts, but Batten refused to part with two evening dresses. Always fashionably attired, she wore an immaculate white jumpsuit in the air; then, shortly after landing, she would appear elegantly dressed in a silk gown, a sure guarantee of front-page photos. Her trip from Thies to Cape San Roque on the Brazil coast was 1,907 miles, with no radio for navigational assistance. Her compass needle began to swing wildly when she crossed the equator, but she pressed on. Despite primitive navigational tools, she arrived within a half mile of her destination. She landed at Port Natal 13½ hours after leaving Africa, breaking Jim Mollison's record by almost 4½ hours.

Jean Batten was now an international superstar met everywhere by cheering crowds. Receptions, lunches, and dinners were held in her honor. In 1935, she was awarded the Brazilian Order of the Southern Cross; the following year, she became a Commander of the Order of the British Empire and a chevalier of the Legion of Honor in France. In 1936, she invited her mother, an ardent supporter of her pursuits, to take a flying holiday with her in Europe. The press went wild when mother and daughter toured the Continent together, and the pair were feted wherever they landed.

But Batten's long-distance flying career had not yet ended. In October 1936, she set out to fly from England to New Zealand, with brief refueling stops. Within eight days, she was touching down in Sydney, Australia, the fastest time ever. The Australians were waiting for her:

As I circled the city, I saw the great harbour bridge and all the roof-tops black with waving people. I landed at Mascot Aerodrome escorted by aeroplanes of the Royal Aero Club of New South Wales…. I shall never forget the full throated roar of welcome that greeted me from thousands of people as I taxied up to the reception dais.

With another 1,330 miles to go to New Zealand, across the treacherous Tasman Sea with its freezing Antarctic gales, Batten asked that no one imperil their lives searching should her plane disappear.

On October 16, 1936, she took off for New Zealand in a time when weather reports were unreliable, especially as few ships sailed the Tasman Sea. Soon caught between foaming waves and raging storm clouds, she fought the wind to keep the Gull on course in sheets of rain. Never sighting land, she flew nine hours, certain she was off course, until New Plymouth came into view. With an almost uncanny navigational ability, an hour later, she reached Auckland where her father and a crowd of thousands awaited her. England and New Zealand had been linked by air for the first time, in 11 days.

In the mid-1930s, Batten turned her hand to writing, authoring Solo Flight (1934) and My Life (1938), later republished as Alone in the Sky. With the advent of World War II, she made one last flight in September 1939. Batten was in neutral Sweden with a "well known count" when she asked the German government for permission to fly her own plane across what was now enemy territory. Respect for the aviator was so great that the guns were silent while she flew over the Third Reich to England. The golden age of aviation ended with this flight. The era of solo pilots in tiny planes was over, and from this point forward huge planes with complex navigation systems would be flown by a crew carrying many passengers.

When the Germans began bombing London, Batten's first instinct was to volunteer for combat. But women were denied this role in Western Europe, although many would distinguish themselves as combat pilots in the Soviet Union. Because the British government did not want to risk losing such a famous personage on a mere cargo mission, Batten was relegated to making speeches and selling war bonds. She never flew again.

But during and after World War II, she remained a well-known figure. She was a beautiful woman who turned down at least five marriage proposals; her name was linked to several men. When asked about her romantic involvements, however, Batten always replied, "My only love is aeroplanes." One of her friends, Mary Anna Ireland , said of the flyer, "Jean disliked men. That's not to say she loved women, because she didn't. She was a loner." Batten's closest attachment remained her mother who nursed her daughter's ambition at the expense of her own marriage. After her mother's divorce, the two women lived in Jamaica and then on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. They settled into comfortable exile, joining British clubs, frequenting English libraries, and attending Anglican services. When Ellen Batten died in 1966, Jean buried her mother in the Anglican cemetery at Puerto de la Cruz on Tenerife. Increasingly, she became a recluse, taking long swims in the harbor or long walks through town. A familiar figure, Batten was Garbo-like, with her face hidden by a large, floppy-brimmed hat.

She lived in a small, bare studio apartment on Tenerife with no photographs or displays of her many trophies and medals. The only memento visible was a small silver model of her Percival Gull that graced the top of the television. This simple lifestyle was not due lack of funds—she would never touch her pension funds and had plenty of money for charity—but to preference. Personal contacts were few, though she had friends like Alan and Nollie Birch , a retired British couple, who were neighbors.

At the end of her life, Batten would fly solo once more. Alan Birch described her sudden departure:

One morning we opened our door and found a shopping bag hanging from the knob. It was full of magazines and things. We knew it was from Jean. But she wasn't there. Later we found out that she'd sold her flat to some Germans and simply left. She never said good-bye. We were a bit hurt; but she was always a private person.

Batten hired a taxi and went to the airport, taking a plane to Majorca off the Spanish coast. On November 8, 1982, she sent a note to her accountant about charitable donations she wished to make; it was her last communication. Five years later, Tim McGirk from the London Times set out on a three-month journey to locate Batten. Eventually, he ended up in Majorca. Mc-Girk learned that she and her mother had flown there in the 1930s to visit the monastery of Valldemosa where Chopin had once stayed; Batten had been enchanted by the village surrounding the monastery. High up on the mountain, the village overlooked the Mediterranean stretched out far below, a familiar view for someone who had flown many miles. Batten had often spoken of returning to the place. On November 22, 1982, 14 days after her last communication, she died in the village high above the blue sea. Several million tourists visit the island each year, and to local officials Jean Batten was just another visitor. When police failed to locate any next of kin, she was buried in a pauper's grave, which would remain unidentified until 1987. Like Amy Johnson and Amelia Earhart , Jean Batten had simply vanished from the earth.


"Batten grave mystery," in Sunday Times [London]. October 4, 1987, p. 22.

"Batten: Jumping Jean's Latest Hop Chalks Up Some New Marks," in Newsweek. Vol. 6, no. 21, November 23, 1935, p. 32.

Batten, Jean. My Life. London: G.G. Harrap, 1938 (republished as Alone in the Sky, Shrewsbury, England: Airlife Publishing, 1979).

——. Solo Flight. Sydney: Jackson & O'Sullivan, 1934.

Boase, Wendy. "'Try Again Jean': Jean Batten" in The Sky's the Limit. NY: Macmillan, 1979, pp. 157–176.

"Flying Down to Rio," in Time. Vol. 26, no. 22, November 25, 1935, p. 57.

Henshaw, Barbara. "Plane spotter got it wrong," in Sunday Times [London]. February 15, 1987, p. 31.

Lauwick, Hervé. "Jean Batten, The Girl Napoleon," in Heroines of the Sky. Translated by James Cleugh. London: Frederick Muller, 1960, pp. 186–201.

Lomax, Judy. "Jean Batten: Daughter of the Sky," in Women of the Air. NY: Dodd, Mead, 1987, pp. 108–118.

McGirk, Tim. "The Vanishing Aviator," in Sunday Times Magazine [London]. February 1, 1987, pp. 20–24, 27.

"Miss Jean Batten: Daughter of the Skies," in The Times [London]. September 29, 1987, p. 18.

Peace, David. "Memento of a missing heroine," in Sunday Times [London]. February 8, 1987, p. 28.

"Record Flight: Jean Batten Lays London-Melbourne Course," in Newsweek. Vol. 3, no. 22, June 2, 1934, p. 22.

Karin Loewen Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia