Signed photo of Jean Batten, June 18, 1934.
Jean Gardner Batten, photographer unknown, 1936, New Zealand Free Lance Collection. «-087791-F.
Jean Gardner Batten, a
strikingly beautiful New Zealand woman, became one of the world's most popular
and famous pilots when she established several individual flight distance
records in the 1930s. Some of her marks would stand for almost half a century,
while others she would better on her own. Batten was extremely close to her
mother and thrived on parental attention. She also liked the international
acclaim she received. Regardless of her public image, however, Batten possessed
some dark qualities. Sometimes she used her feminine charms to manipulate men
into providing her with the means to achieve her record-setting goals. She was
also very eccentric and reclusive, which when coupled with her glamour and
fame, was why Ian Mackersey, Batten's leading biographer, dubbed Batten "The Garbo of the Skies."
Batten was born in
Rotorua, New Zealand, on September 15, 1909, to a modest dentist's family. From
her earliest days, Jean seemed predestined to become a great aviator. In a
seemingly serendipitous act, Batten's mother pinned a photo of the famous
French pilot Louis Bleriot on
the wall next to Jean's crib.
Jean was an excellent
student. She won several academic prizes and was a gifted pianist. During her
teenage years, she developed into an extremely attractive woman, but she often
appeared quite aloof. As Mackersey noted, Jean was "a loner: a highly
intelligent, solitary person whom few could warm to."
Jean and her mother Ellen
had a close bond, partly brought about by living with her mother after her
parents had separated. Her mother was an early feminist and influenced her
daughter dramatically, passing along her extreme independence and strong-willed
Batten became particularly
interested in flight when Charles
Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic in 1927. She was also inspired by Charles
Kingsford-Smith's transpacific flight the following
year. By 1929, she was so anxious to fly that she convinced her mother to
approach Kingsford-Smith and persuade him to take her up in his plane, the Southern Cross. Jean flew high above
Sydney, Australia, with "Smithy," and from then on, there was no
turning back. She was determined to become a top-notch pilot. Her mother,
wanting to give her daughter the best opportunities, decided to move to London,
one of the era's great aviation centers.
Jean earned her individual
pilot's license in London in December 1930. Her immediate goal was to break the
solo flight record from England to Australia that aviator Amy Johnson had
established earlier that year. The only problem was that she needed a plane.
Because she did not have enough money to buy her own aircraft, she decided to
try to attract a corporate sponsor. But without a commercial pilot's license,
her chances were slim. Furthermore, Jean did not have the $500 needed to
secure a commercial certificate. Fortunately for her, a young New Zealand pilot
named Fred Truman, the first of many suitors, gave her the money. It was his
life savings. Batten remained romantically involved with Truman just long enough
to get her license and then ended the relationship. She quickly became involved
with another man, an Englishman named Victor Doree, who gave her the money to
purchase her first plane, a bi-wing de Havilland Gipsy Moth.
Batten finally took off in
pursuit of Amy Johnson's 20-day England-to-Australia flight record in April
1933. Unfortunately, a sandstorm caused her engine to fail and she crashed in
Karachi, Pakistan. Although Jean escaped serious injury, the plane was a wreck.
After returning to England, she asked Doree for another aircraft, and when he
refused, she stopped seeing him. Fortunately for Batten, the Castrol Oil
Company had taken notice of her and bought her another Gipsy Moth.
Batten's second attempt at
Johnson's record began on April 21, 1934, but she ran into trouble very
quickly. Batten miscalculated her fuel consumption and damaged her plane among
a series of radio towers while making an emergency landing outside of Rome.
While Batten escaped the flight unscathed, the plane required too many repairs
to continue, and she returned to England. There, she repaired her plane by
using the bottom wing from an aircraft owned by her latest suitor, Edward
Walter, a London stockbroker who would become her fiancé.
On May 8, 1934, Batten was
ready to try again. This time she succeeded. After flying more than some 10,500
miles (16,898 kilometers), she bettered Johnson's record by more than six days.
Batten reached Darwin, Australia, with an official time of 14 days, 22 hours,
30 minutes, and became an international hero. Soon after, she broke her
engagement to Walter and went on to the next man, Beverly Shepard, an
Australian airline pilot, a man who many believed she truly loved. Walter,
furious with Jean, billed her for the wing she had used to repair her Moth.
Soon after bettering
Johnson's mark, Batten bought a new aircraft, a Percival Gull monoplane, which,
with its extra fuel tank, was perfectly suited for long-distance record
attempts. On November 11, 1935, Batten took off in pursuit of another record,
the best time from England to South America. After flying to Dakar, Senegal,
Batten began the most dangerous part of her journey, a 1,900-mile
(3,058-kilometer) leg over the treacherous South Atlantic to Port Natal,
Brazil. Using only a watch and compass to guide her, Batten made the
transatlantic trip in 13 hours, 15 minutes. The entire trip from England, a
distance of approximately 5,000 miles (8,047 kilometers), had taken only 61
hours, 15 minutes, a new record. Batten had also become the first woman to
pilot a plane across the South Atlantic.
A year later, she was back
at it again. On October 5, 1936, Batten climbed into her Gull and set out to
better the England-to-New Zealand record. She made it to Australia, the first
major section of the trip, in six days and shattered her own record set two
years earlier. Then, after waiting a few days for acceptable weather over the
Tasman Sea, she left for New Zealand. Batten made it in 10 hours, 30 minutes.
The total journey of 14,224 miles (22,891 kilometers) had taken 11 days, 45
minutes, and set a record that would stand for 44 years.
Soon after, Batten faced
some personal hardships. During her hero's tour of New Zealand, she suffered a
nervous breakdown and went into seclusion with her mother. After recuperating,
she traveled to Sydney in February 1937 to reunite with her fiance Shephard,
but on the day she arrived, he died in a plane crash. With the only man she
truly loved gone, Batten sunk into a deep depression. It took her mother almost
eight months to coax Jean out of her despair and get her to fly again.
In October 1937, Jean set
another record--her final one--by flying from Australia to England in five
days, 18 hours, 15 minutes. As a result, Batten became the first person--man or
woman--to simultaneously hold the solo flight records between England and
Australia in both directions.
After establishing her
final record, Jean and her mother traveled the world in relative seclusion.
Although Jean resurfaced for a while during World War II, she and her mother
returned to seclusion after the war. When her mother died in 1966, Jean was
heartbroken. She lived in solitude for many years. Despite a celebrated return
to public life in 1969, Batten eventually became a recluse again. On November
22, 1982, while living on the Spanish island of Majorca, Batten died of an
infection caused by a dog bite; the wound had turned septic and spread to her
lungs after she refused medical treatment. Because people on Majorca did not
know who she was, Batten received a burial in an unmarked pauper's grave. The
world would not learn of her death for several years, and then only after her
publisher had launched an investigation as to her whereabouts.
Throughout her remarkable
career, Batten received a number of prestigious awards. From 1935 to 1937, she
held the Harmon International Trophy, a prize for the most outstanding flight
in a given year. She also received the Brazilian Order of the Southern Cross
and "The Freedom of the City of London," among other honors. To this
day, many people still remember and greatly admire Batten. Fittingly, New
Zealand's Auckland International Airport bears her name.
--David H. Onkst
Sources and further reading:
Jean. Alone in the Sky. Shrewsbury,
England: Airlife, 1979.
My Life. London, England: George
Harrap and Company, 1938.
Solo Flight. Sydney, Australia:
Jackson and O'Sullivan Limited, 1934.
Elizabeth S. Sisters of the Wind: Voices
of Early Women Aviators. Pasadena, Cal.: Trilogy Books, 1994.
Shirley. Silver Wings: New Zealand Woman
Aviator: Wellington, New Zealand: Grantham House, 1989.
Ian. Jean Batten: The Garbo of the Skies.
New York: Warner Brothers, 1999.
Valerie. Women Aloft. Alexandria,
Va.: Time-Life Books, 1981.
Ballentine, Phillipa Jane. "Jean Batten- Part 1." http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/new_zealand_history/49160
__________. "Jean Batten-
Part 2" http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/new_zealand_history/51456.
"Jean Batten -- Airport
Information and History." http://www.auckland-airport.co.nz/batten.html
Gardner Batten, CBE, (1909 -1982)." http://www.ctie.monash.edu.au/hargrave/jean_batten_bio.html
Daughter of the Skies." http://www.nzedge.com/heroes/batten.html
"Jean Batten." http://www.nzemb.org/famous/batten.htm
Mackersey, Ian. "Batten, Jean Gardner 1909-1982." Dictionary
of New Zealand Biography, Saturday, 1 December 2001. http://www.dnzb.govt.nz/