Friday, March 30, 2018

Jean Batten: An Amazing Early Aviatrix

If you ever departed from Auckland, New Zealand (or if you live there) you might have seen a grey Percival Gull monoplane hanging overhead a couple of duty-free stores in the international airport terminal. In fact, the terminal is named after Jean Batten.  The upper walls of this terminal are decorated with an image of New Zealand’s most famous women pilot.  
How it All Began:
Though she was a gifted pianist, at age eighteen she decided to become a pilot after the Australian pilot Charles Kingsford Smith took her for a flight in his Southern Cross airplane. In 1929 she moved with her mother to England, to join the London Aeroplane Club.  Jean Batten gained her private and commercial licenses in 1932 and started her long-distance flights around the world.

Later, she received an endorsement contract with Castrol Oil and several awards for her achievements.  Local Maori honored her with a feather cloak and she was named “Hine-o-te-Rangi” – "Daughter of the Skies”.  Jean Batten also wrote two books: Solo Flight and My Life.  The latter is still available in digital format through the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection in Wellington.

She flew solo from Britain to New Zealand in the 1930s.  Born in Roturoa, NZ, in 1909, the famous aviatrix, died an infamously obscure death in Palma de Majorca, Spain - the antipode of NZ. In 1982 she was bitten by a dog on the island of Majorca. She refused treatment and the wound became infected.  She died alone in a hotel in Majorca, from complications due to the dog bite. The world only learned about her death five years later, as she was buried in a paupers grave. In the Palma suburb of La Bonanova, not far from where Batten died, there's now a newly rechristened street called Carrer de Jean Batten, or Jean Batten St.
Jean Batten: The Garbo of the Skies
She was the sweetheart of the nation in the mid-1930s when she made her pioneering solo flights, but thereafter she pretty much turned her back on New Zealand.  She is remembered in some ways, quite forgotten in others.  Around the country, there are several statues, streets, a park and a school named after her, and even a couple of mountain peaks.  And a dramatic statue of Jean Batten still stands outside the terminal in Auckland.  However, not every Kiwi is aware of her significance to New Zealand’s aviation and to the airport.
Women Fly Just as Good as Men
For young New Zealand women, she was a role model and showed that women could fly just as good as men, and even outperform them at times.  Her amazing achievements include, among others, these flights:

1933 Great Britain – India in a Gipsy Moth open biplane
1934 Great Britain – Australia in less than 15 days in a Gipsy Moth open biplane
1935 Australia - England in 17 days and 15 hours
1935 Great Britain – Brasilia in 61 hours in a Percival Vega Gull
1936 Great Britain – New Zealand in 11 days in a Percival Vega Gull

Record-Breaking Trans-World Flights
These flights all took place in tiny airplanes with no navigational equipment, no air traffic control, barely any maps, and difficulties to even get fuel and technical support anywhere along the route!  With this meager equipment, today's pilots would have been lost… Jean Batten even survived several crash-landings, but never gave up. 

After two failed attempts to fly from England to Australia, Jean made her comeback with a record-breaking return journey in 1934.

Her Cat Flew With Her From England to New Zealand
Her success elevated in 1935 when she became the first woman to ever fly solo across the South Atlantic, and then it soared in 1936 when Jean and her lucky black cat, Buddy, made the first-ever direct flight from England to New Zealand. She described the moment the wheels hit the turf as “the very greatest moment of my life,” proving to the world that the sky’s only the limit if you let it.

WWII Ended Batten's Flying Adventures
Her Gull was commissioned to active service and Batten was not permitted to fly it.  During the war, she was involved in campaigns, giving lectures in England to raise money for guns and airplanes, but her flying days - unfortunately - were over.

Ian Mackersey: Jean Batten: The Garbo of the Skies. Warner Books, London 1992
ISBN 0-7088-5332-3 available through

Jean Batten was one of the great aviation megastars of the 1930s. Her spectacular flights ranked with those of Britain's Amy Johnson and America's Amelia Earhart. Yet, despite her brilliance as a pilot, she remained the least well-known of them all, as the dentist's daughter from New Zealand built an impregnable wall around her private life.                                                                                                                                                                                                     


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