DAUGHTER OF THE SKIES

“Jean you are a very naughty girl and really I think you want a good spanking for giving us such a terribly anxious time.” Auckland mayor, Ernest Davis condescendingly said to Jean Batten at a ceremony to celebrate her record breaking 11 day solo flight from England to New Zealand.

jean21Jean Batten at Auckland Ceremony

It was 1936, and Jean Batten was one of the most famous females in the world.

jean1Jean Batten

ORDINARY LIFE

When Jean was a baby, it is said her ambitious mother, Ellen, pinned a photo of Frenchman, Louis Bleriot to the wall at the side of her cot. Bleriot had made the first flight across the English Channel and Ellen regarded his image as a symbol of the new world her daughter had been born into. The headstrong woman wanted Jean to reach for the sky.

During her teenage years, Rotorua born Jean Batten showed promise as a concert pianist and ballerina. Although she had three brothers, her energetic mother felt stifled in their provincial city and longed for a life of fame and excitement. She decided her frail, but attractive daughter Jean, would be the one to help her realize her dream.

BIRTH OF A DREAM

When Jean was a little girl of six or seven, she watched an aircraft flying around an airfield.“As I watched spellbound and the plane turned to fly back and circle the bay with the sunlight glistening on its silver wings, I experienced such a surge of exhilaration that I felt quite sick with longing to be up there in it,” she wrote in her book Solo Flight published in 1934. Jean would eventually write three books about her exploits with Alone in the Skies and My Life both published in 1938.

jean86

FIRST FLIGHT

In 1929, Ellen organized a ride for her daughter with Charles Kingsford-Smith. After a short trip in his Southern Cross aircraft, Jean pressed him with many questions about aviation but he warned the young girl, “Don’t attempt to break men’s records.”  Charles was a hero after completing the first trans-Pacific flight the previous year. Inflamed by his sexist warning, Jean decided on the spot she would become a female flying hero and break records! Fortunately, her mother was a feminist and believed women could do anything and after selling the family’s piano, the pair of them headed to England where Jean joined the London Aeroplane Club. Jean soon set her sights on beating Amy Johnson who had recently been the first female to fly from England to Australia. It was estimated one million people turned out to see Amy land at Croydon Airfield after she returned from her record breaking flight. Jean longed for similar adulation.

LEARNING TO FLY

Jean’s flying instructors didn’t think the slim Kiwi girl would make a good pilot after she had a few bad landings and nearly crashed her training aircraft. However, after much grit and determination, on the 5th of December 1930, Jean Batten gained her Commercial Pilot’s Licence. She immediately asked a boyfriend for 400 pounds to purchased a second hand Gypsy Moth biplane and announced she was going to fly to Australia. She was fixated on beating Amy Johnson’s record.

jean2De Havilland Gypsy Moth Bi-plane

EARLY FAILURES

Jean’s first ambitious flight ended after she flew into a sand storm and the engine failed resulting in a forced landing in the desert. When the storm passed, Jean was approached by a group of Arab men who wanted to know where the pilot was. They refused to believe a woman was in charge of the plane!  After she did some repairs to the cockpit, Jean took off again. However, the aircraft’s primitive engine failed after a con rod snapped and she crashed just outside Karachi. Undeterred, the intrepid young aviatrix pressed ahead with her slightly battered aircraft. Fortune wasn’t on her side as she ran out of fuel and crashed into radio masts on the outskirts of Rome. With a partly severed lip, she returned to England and immediately approached another male companion for funds to purchase a replacement aircraft. By now the press had dubbed her ‘the try again girl’.

AVIATION FASHION

During the 1930s, it was fashionable for society women, especially in the USA, to show an interest in aviation.  Flying became the thing to do. Even Vogue Magazine had fashion tips for the female aviator based on the clothing worn by Amelia Earhart and the wife of Charles Lindberg. “A helmet is vital to keep out the noise and to keep in your hair. A white canvas one like Mrs. Lindberg’s is good for the south (of the USA) and a leather for the north. For long trips, Mrs. Lindberg wears jodhpurs and a double breasted leather jacket from Abercrombie and Fitch.”

jean821930s Aviation Fashion

PUBLIC IMAGE

Jean’s mother hoped her daughter’s flying exploits would not only make her a celebrity, but that she would also be an influence on the social set in Europe and America. Jean was aware of her good looks and freshened her lipstick before leaving her cockpit so she could look glamorous for the press. She always carried a silk dress in her aircraft to wear at the functions organized in her honour. It was suggested Jean showed interest in various men just to obtain funding for her flying ambitions and feed her passionate desire to be famous. She would do anything to make it happen.

SUCCESS AT LAST

In 1934, Jean achieved her dream when she flew from England to Australia in another Gipsy Moth bi-plane. The flight took 14 days and 22 hours. When you consider there was no radar or satellite navigation and the small aircraft was flimsy and unreliable at best, you realize how dangerous the undertaking was for Jean. She navigated her way across the planet using only a hand-held compass and her watch. To add to the monumental challenge, she endured monsoons, sandstorms, freezing winds and scalding sun in the Moth’s open cockpit. After the long haul flight, Jean Batten became a sensation in England, Australia and New Zealand, and her solo record would remain unbeaten until 1979. By the late 1930s, Jean Batten was more famous than the movie stars of the day.

jean54BETTER AIRCRAFT

After the success of her Australian flight, Jean was able to purchase a Percival Gull Six, which is the plane now suspended above the duty free shopping arcade in Auckland’s International Terminal.

jean567Jean’s Gull Six Aircraft at Auckland International Airport

The Gull Six could fly at178mph (286km/h) and, unlike the Tiger Moth, this plane had an enclosed cockpit. Jean continued to reach for the skies when in 1935 she flew from England to Brazil making it the fastest flight by any pilot across the South Atlantic. She was also the first female to fly between Britain and South America. By now, with these long distance flights over oceans, Jean had demonstrated her stamina and navigational skills to the world. Any error would be fatal. When her plane disappeared on a short flight across Brazil to Rio de Janeiro, the Brazilian Air Force mounted a large scale search and found the little Gull Six on a remote beach with a bent propeller and axle-deep in the sand. Jean had run out of fuel due to a loose tank fitting. If this had happened over the Atlantic she and her aircraft would have vanished the way Amelia Earhart did over the Pacific less than two years later.

I have some understanding of the perils Jean faced on her long haul flights. I was in a light charter aircraft with an inexperienced pilot when we met with strong headwinds during a 90 minute flight over the mountain wilderness of New Zealand’s South Island. Fuel was running low as heavy rain obscured the ground below. Flying blind with fuel running out, my heart started to thump. There was a period of around 10 minutes when we were in danger of hitting a mountain peak and if we didn’t find a place to land, we would be in serious trouble. Jean must have faced similar fearful situations on a number of occasions, and her aircraft wasn’t as well built as the one I was in.

Jean’s next accomplishment in the Gull was a record-breaking 22,890 kms (14,220 miles) solo flight from England to New Zealand in 1936, and the following year she set yet another record with a gruelling Australia to England flight. She now held the solo flying record in both directions.

SAD ENDING

When WWII broke out, Jean offered her services to the RAF but she was stunned to be turned down and was certain it was because she was female. She did some fundraising and public speaking to help the war effort but when her beloved Gull was requisitioned, she retired from her social commitments and moved to the Caribbean to live quietly in a small apartment with her mother. The press referred to the reclusive former aviatrix as “the Garbo of the Skies” – until she faded from the world.

While living in the Caribbean, Jean was a neighbour to Ian Fleming and Noel Coward. She became close to Fleming and it is suggested he modeled his character Solitaire in his second book Live and Let Die on Jean.

jean88zJean with her Mother Ellen

After her mother died, Jean who admitted in one of her books, that she often suffered from loneliness, was grief stricken. She moved into a small apartment in Majorca in Spain. In November 1982, while out for a lonely walk, she was bitten by a dog. Infection set in but she refused medical attention and died alone in her apartment at the age of 73. The local authorities had no idea who she was so she was buried in a communal grave with about 150 others. Her family in New Zealand didn’t manage to trace her whereabouts until 1987. By then, identifying her remains in the mass grave was out of the question, so she remained in a pauper’s grave where she had been anonymously laid to rest.

During Jean’s successful years, she experienced a series of personal tragedies. A number of her friends, mentors and lovers died, many in planes.

Today, Jean is remembered with streets and educational establishments in a number of New Zealand towns named in her honour. Jean had said she wanted her ashes buried at Auckland Airport. That wasn’t to be but she is remembered with Auckland International Airport’s new terminal named ‘JEAN BATTEN”. A statue of her is also mounted outside the terminal building.

jean99sJean Batten Statue Auckland Airport

On 23rd October 2016 the movie “Jean” was released. It tells the remarkable story of a lonely heroine who proved to Charles Kingsford-Smith, and the world, that females can break records.

Jean Batten reached for the sky but on the ground, she was a lonely woman who allowed only her mother to be emotionally close to her .

jean885“Jean” Poster

“We glory in your wonderful and magnificent pluck, dear. We knew you could do it!” Auckland’s mayor, Ernest Davis.

Here is actual footage of Jean Batten’s arrivals after various record breaking flights. It is amazing how small and fragile her planes were.

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Comments

  1. This is very interesting.

  2. Nice article!

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