27 May, 1934.
From beneath the clouds, she could see the city of Darwin unfolding before her eyes. Finally, after two failed attempts, her 14 day, 23 hour, 23 minute journey from England to Australia in a Gipsy Moth biplane is coming to an end. She has weathered typhoons, the arid desert air, and ruthless sandstorms with the grim determination of someone loving each and every moment of the trial they have set before themselves.
She makes her descent. Her wheels align with the runway. She touches down.
Jean Batten has arrived.
Jean Batten was born Jane Batten on September 15th, 1909, in the town of Rotorua on New Zealand’s north island. Legend says that Batten’s mother pinned a picture of French pilot Louis Bleriot, who had just completed a history journey across the English Channel in a monoplane, over her cot. At the age of four, Batten moved with her parents and two older brothers to Auckland.
Life was relatively good for a few years, until her father volunteered to be sent to the Western Front in 1917. With him left the family’s only source of income, and for two years they struggled to survive. When Frederick returned in 1919, his womanising created a rift between him and his wife, Ellen. They separated in 1920; Frederick took the boys, while Ellen cared for Batten.
Batten attended a convent school for a few years, before boarding at the Ladies College in Remuera. Here she studied ballet and piano, proving herself quite gifted in the latter. In fact, Batten may have pursued a career as a pianist if not for a holiday to Australia in 1928, during which Ellen arranged for Batten to take a flight with internationally revered aviator Charles Kingsford Smith in his Southern Cross plane.
It was in that moment that Batten decided to become a pilot, a career choice Ellen worked hard to support. The very next year, the pair sailed to England, where Batten joined the London Aeroplane Club. Here, she learnt to fly, gaining her ‘A’ license in December, and immediately setting her sights on breaking the women’s record for shortest flight from England to Australia.
In 1930, Batten took her first solo flight, and borrowed money to gain her private and commercial licenses over the next two years. It all culminated in the completion of her ‘B’ license, and the acquisition of a Gipsy Moth biplane.
It was with this plane that Batten would make her first attempt at the round-the-world flight that would eventually make her an icon around the world. In April of 1933, she set the record for a woman pilot by reaching Karachi in four and a half days, but a sudden sandstorm caused her to crash land. Batten came out unscathed, but her plane was a wreck.
Trekking back to England, Batten’s dreams came to an abrupt pause. She had no plane, and none of the people from whom she had previously borrowed money were willing to give her any more. Eventually, she managed to come to an agreement with the Castrol oil company, who purchased her a second-hand Gipsy Moth for £240.
A second attempt came exactly one year after the first, but to no success. Batten ran out of fuel over Rome. During the resulting crash, she bit her lip so hard that she nearly severed it completely. Fortunately, her plane could be repaired. She returned to London, and borrowed the lower wings from her fiancé, Edward Walter’s, vehicle.
It only took a month this time for Batten to return to the air, and the third time certainly proved a charm, as did the three mascots she took with her on the flight – a piece of lion bone, a St. Christopher medal, and the Union Jack. “I am taking no chances,” she declared.
Batten flew from London to Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory, a total distance of 16,900 kilometres, in 14 days, 23 hours, and 23 minutes, beating the record previously held by a woman by four days. She was only 24.
Within the year, Batten had written a book about her trip, entitled Solo Flight, and undertaken aerial tours of both Australia and New Zealand. She became a media darling, thanks to her passion, beauty, and intelligence alike.
She then made a return flight to England, become the first woman to ever do so. Her time was 17 days, 15 hours.
Batten then purchased a Percival Gull Six, which she used to set the world record for a flight from England to Brazil, completed in 61 hours, 15 minutes. For this accomplishment, she received the Order of the Southern Cross from the Brazilian government.
Barely a year later, Batten set another world record, reaching New Zealand after departing England in 11 days, 45 minutes, which include two and a half days spent in Sydney. Returning to her hometown of Rotorua, the local Maori tribe gifted her a chief’s feather clock, and dubbed her Hine-o-te-Rangi: Daughter of the Skies.
She was named Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and received the Cross of Chevalier of the French Legion of Honour in 1936, and won the second of three Harmon trophies she would be given over her lifetime to commemorate her unique success as an aviatrix.
Her most prestigious award would be granted in 1938, when she was given the medal of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, the highest honour for any aviator. She was the first woman to receive the medal.
World War II broke out the next year, and it marked the end of Batten’s career. Her plane was commissioned into service, but she was not permitted to fly it. Instead, she was sent to lecture around England to raise money for the war effort.
This would mark the end of her public life. In the decades that followed, Batten and Ellen moved around the world together, until her mother’s death in 1965. She returned to New Zealand as a guest of honour for the opening of the Aviation Pioneers Pavilion at the Museum of Transport and Technology, but left for her home in Spain almost immediately after the ceremony.
In 1982, at the age of 73, Batten was bitten by a dog, but refused treatment. The wound festered, and she subsequently died, forgotten and alone, in a hotel. Batten was buried in a pauper’s grave under her middle name, Gardner. It would take five years before her death was discovered.
Although she died in near-anonymity, Jean Batten is remembered proudly today. Ten New Zealand school houses are named after her, as is a school in Mangere, the international terminal at Auckland Airport, and streets in half a dozen cities. Never will her accomplishments be forgotten.