Who was Jean Batten?
Jean Gardner Batten, who was given the title ‘Hine-o-te-Rangi’ – ‘Daughter of the Skies’, was a remarkable aviator from New Zealand. She became internationally famous for her numerous record-breaking solo flights around the world. She was one of the most celebrated New Zealanders during the 1930s whose heroic and daring aviation trips found place in many newspapers and newsreels worldwide. A new women’s record was set by her in 1934, when she made a solo flight from England to Australia in 14 days, 22 hours, and 30 minutes. She was the first woman who flew solo from Australia to England and from England to Argentina. She made her next world record by flying solo from England to New Zealand in 1936. She had set record times in solo flights from England to Australia, from Australia to England and from England to Brazil. Batten received several honours and awards in her lifetime. In 1936 she was made ‘Commander of the British Empire’ (CBE) and was also bestowed with the ‘Cross of Chevalier’ of the French ‘Legion of Honour’. In 1938, Batten became the first woman aviator to receive the medal of ‘Fédération Aéronautique Internationale’, considered to be the highest honour in aviation, apart from receiving several other awards and recognitions in her career. Her autobiography, ‘My Life’ was published in 1938.
Childhood & Early Life
She was born on September 15, 1909 in Rotorua, New Zealand, to Frederick Batten and Ellen Batten as the only daughter among three children.
Her family moved to Auckland in 1913 and at five Batten started attending ‘Melmerley Ladies School’ in Parnell.
Her father, a dental surgeon, volunteered to join the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in 1917 during the ‘First World War’ and was subsequently posted in the Western Front.
Absence of her father’s earnings disrupted financial condition of the family causing several hardships. They were forced to dwell in several cheap and shabby accommodations and she was also later shifted to a state school.
Though her father came back to Auckland in 1919, her parents' relationship strained and they parted ways in around 1920.
She went to live with her mother Ellen, with whom she developed a close bond and who encouraged and supported her in her journey of becoming a successful aviator.
Initially she moved to Howick with her mother and enrolled in a local convent school, but later in 1922 they returned to Auckland.
In 1924, financed by her father, she joined a boarding college for girls in Remuera and learnt ballet and piano with the objective of becoming a professional performer in both.
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Her career objective however changed dramatically in the late 1920s when she developed a passion for flying. It was the beginning of an era that was marked with highly publicized record-setting and record-breaking flights made by many aviators. She was inspired by the non-stop solo-flight of Charles Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic Ocean.
Her mother, who supported her, took her to Sydney on a holiday in 1929 and made arrangements for her to fly with Charles Kingsford Smith, an Australian pilot, in his tri-motor ‘Southern Cross’.
In 1930 she moved to England with her mother and joined the ‘London Aeroplane Club’.
She required funds to obtain her private and commercial licences and borrowed £500 from a young pilot Fred Truman from New Zealand, who was serving the ‘Royal Air Force’ and who wanted to marry her. She gained both her licences by 1932 but thereafter never looked back at Truman. She also took up courses in aircraft maintenance and mechanics.
She became close to Victor Dorée and the association saw Dorée borrowing £400 from his mother so that Batten would have a Gipsy Moth biplane originally owned by the Prince of Wales that changed hands many times thereafter. NZ History Online mentioned, "Raising money by taking advantage of her relationships with men was a theme that continued throughout her flying career.”
She aimed at breaking the women’s record of 19½ day solo flight from England to Australia by English pilot Amy Johnson. Her first two attempts met with failure.
The first attempt in April 1933 saw her hitting two sandstorms over Iraq resulting in failure of the engine and the aircraft was severely damaged. Unable to convince Dorée for another aircraft, she approached ‘Castrol Oil Company’. The latter purchased a second-hand Gipsy Moth for her worth £240.
In April 1934, she made a second attempt. This time she ran out of fuel on the outskirts of Rome and had to make a crash landing at night. After repairing the aircraft she flew it to London.
Stockbroker Edward Walter, her fiancé, lent her the lower wings of his own aircraft and with that she was ready for her third attempt.
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Setting out on May 8, 1934 she successfully completed her solo flight from England to Australia in 14 days, 22 hours, 30 minutes, breaking the earlier record of Amy Johnson by more than four days.
In 1934, ‘Jackson and O'Sullivan Ltd’ published her memoir, ‘Solo Flight’, about her trip.
Thereafter, she purchased a Percival Gull Six monoplane, G-ADPR.
In 1935, she became the first woman to undertake a return flight from Australia to England, which she completed in 17 days 15 hours. The same year she became the first woman to fly from England to South America. She set world record of flying from England to Brazil in 61 hours 15 minutes. It fetched her ‘Order of the Southern Cross’, thus making her the first person apart from Royalty to receive such honor.
Her other achievements in 1935 included being the fastest to cross South Atlantic Ocean in around 13 hours 15 minutes and also first woman to fly across South Atlantic.
Her record setting spree continued and in 1936 she created a new world record with her solo flight from England to New Zealand in 11 days 45 minutes, which included two and half days in Sydney.
However, the ‘Second World War’ brought an end to her flight adventures. Although her aircraft was put to active use, she was not allowed to fly it. She eventually got associated with different campaigns in England to raise funds for guns and aircrafts.
Post war she almost detached herself from public life barring a few appearances.
Personal Life & Legacy
Her later years saw her leading a life of a recluse. She stayed at different places with her mother, who died on the island of Tenerife, Spain in 1965.
Though Batten had a number of romantic relationships but she never got married.
In 1982, while Batten was living in Majorca, Spain, she got wounded of a dog bite. As she refused to get proper treatment, the infection soon spread leading to complications and ultimately to her death on November 22, 1982.
Once a celebrated aviator, she was buried in an unknown grave on the Majorca island on January 22, 1983.
After a lapse of time when her friends did not get any correspondence from her, they started worrying about her well being. A cursory inquiry was also commenced for a while. It was only after five years that the world came to know of her death when Ian Mackersey, a writer and documentary filmmaker, discovered the fact when he went to Majorca to look for her.