Aviatrix a true heroine

GRAEME DUCKETT
Last updated 05:00 07/12/2013
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Jean Batten

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Throughout history women have achieved great things and remain forever etched in the pages of history. New Zealand aviator Jean Batten was one of those amazing women who dared to be different and challenge what life had to offer her.

Batten's spectacular oceanic flights from England to Australia, New Zealand and South America, ranked with those of Amy Johnson and Amelia Earhart. Yet in spite of this she was a lesser known aviator in that golden age of dangerous and perilous journeys in the air in an open cockpit, braving the forces of nature in the name of record-breaking achievement and success.

To those who greeted her here at Bell Block Aerodrome in 1934, she was a megastar.

Jean Gardner Batten was born on September 15, 1909 in Rotorua. Her father Frederick was a dentist, and her mother Ellen, her strongest supporter, a thwarted actress who lived out her own adventure fantasies through her daughter, later pushing her to the limit to take flight after flight in spite of the obvious dangers.

Batten attended Remuera Girls' College, and although she was to become a gifted pianist, her ambition was to fly. After shifting to London with her mother, and successfully qualifying for her flying licences, she borrowed a large sum of money from her boyfriend and fellow Kiwi pilot Fred Truman to buy her first aircraft, a De Havilland Gypsy Moth.

She made two unsuccessful attempts to beat Amy Johnson's time to Australia. In April 1933, on her first attempt, she had a series of forced landings on the way, finally crash- landing with engine failure approaching Karachi, wrecking the aircraft.

Returning to London she could not persuade her new boyfriend Victor Doree to buy her another aircraft so she turned to the Castrol oil company, which bought her a second hand Gypsy Moth for [PndStlg]240. She made another attempt for Australia in April 1934 but ran out of fuel at night on the outskirts of Rome, in darkness and rain, crash- landing in the middle of the San Paolo wireless station, nearly severing her lip.

After major repairs to the aircraft, she flew back to Brooklands for a third attempt undeterred.

Following her successful solo flight from England to Australia, in 14 days, 22 hours, which set the record for the fastest woman's solo flight between the two countries, beating Johnson's record by more than four days, Batten made a tour of New Zealand.

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She arrived in New Plymouth on Saturday, July 25, 1934, to a rousing reception from a large crowd of onlookers and adoring fans, two hours after she left Palmerston North.

Four New Plymouth aeroplanes flew down to Wanganui to meet her and escorted her back. They flew over all the towns en-route, including Hawera, Eltham, Stratford and Inglewood and from there headed to New Plymouth.

My mother often spoke of seeing Batten fly over Stratford, and what a thrill it was to those in the district - "she was like a movie star" to them all.

The flight to Taranaki was a very cold one, and a bumpy ride, the planes striking rain as they flew over Inglewood.

A Government Gypsy Moth led the formation, flown by Squadron leader Mr L M Isitt. Other planes in the formation were ZK-ACZ, flown by Miss Eva Parkinson, with Flight Officer Ian Keith (New Plymouth); ZK-ACH flown by Mr K Martin, of New Plymouth, with passenger Mr F Brown, also of New Plymouth; ZK-ABP with Mr Plumtree (New Plymouth) and passenger Mr A Smith (Pungarehu); and ZK-ABS, flown by Mr H W Lightband with passenger Miss Gwen Lightband, both of New Plymouth.

After circling over the city for some time, they appeared out of the clouds and all landed safely at Bell Block aerodrome; the five escorts landing first, followed by Batten.

The crowd cheered and clapped as she exited the cockpit, with her mascot and companion Buddy, a jet-black kitten.

She was greeted by her uncle from Stratford, E R Batten, and several prominent citizens of New Plymouth, before being officially welcomed by the president of the New Plymouth Aero Club and chairman of the New Plymouth Airport Board, Mr Sandford, who said that "both organisations extended her very cordial welcome to New Plymouth.

"They were proud to meet her and in some way show their appreciation of her wonderful achievement in flying from England to Australia."

She was invited to add her name to the other famous pilots in the visitors' book, which she signed "Jean Batten, Auckland", adding in the column for her passenger, "Buddy". She stayed in New Plymouth at the Criterion Hotel. Her aircraft was given a good inspection at the airport before she left Taranaki bound for Auckland on August 1, 1934.

Bob Fletcher of Urenui, now in his 90s, told me that "Jean flew over Waitara on her way north, dropping a pinecone in the bottom field of Waitara Central School with a note of goodwill attached to it, to the delight of the children and teachers."

After her first successful Australia solo flight, she bought a Percival Gull Six monoplane which was named "Jean".

In 1935 she set a world record flying from England to Brazil in the Gull, and was presented the Order of the Southern Cross, the first person other than royalty to be so honoured.

In 1936 she set another record with a solo flight from England to New Zealand. At her birth place in Rotorua she was honoured by local Maori, as she had been after her 1934 flight. She was given a chief's feather cloak, and given the name Hine-o-te Rangi - "daughter of the skies".

Batten was created Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 1936, and also given the Cross of Chevalier of the French Legion of Honour that year. For her previous year's achievements she was awarded the Royal Aero Club's Britannia Trophy.

In 1938 she achieved the highest aviation honour by being awarded the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. Batten's glory days were between 1933 and 1937, and as suddenly as she took the newspaper headlines by storm, she disappeared from the headlines.

World War II ended her aviation career, but she continued giving lectures in England to raise funds for guns and aeroplanes. After the war she stepped out of the public eye and became reclusive, living a nomadic life with her mother until her mother's death in 1965. She made an astonishing comeback to the limelight when she appeared in the headlines at the age of 60, with her hair dyed black, a facelift, and wearing a mini skirt, and not looking a day over 40. Visiting many countries, involving herself in aeronautical events, giving interviews to the radio and television, she aimed to rebuild her long forgotten fame.

In 1977 she was the guest of honour at the opening of the Aviation Pioneer's Pavilion at Auckland's Museum of Transport and Technology.

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 room on Majorca, from complications of the dog bite and was buried on January 22, 1983 in an anonymous grave.

A bureaucratic error, however, meant that neither relatives nor the rest of the world knew of her death until September 1987. It was a sad end for such a famous woman and outstanding aviator, a strikingly beautiful and glamorous woman who will be remembered by generations to come.

- Taranaki Daily News

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