Hine-o-te-Rangi: Daughter of the skies
She was the manifestation of triumph and hope against the odds through the dark days of the depression. In 1934 she smashed by six days Amy Johnsons flight time between England and Australia. The following year she was the first woman to make the return flight. In 1936 she made the first ever direct flight between England and New Zealand and then the fastest ever trans-Tasman flight. Jean Batten was the Garbo of the Skies. She stood for adventure, daring, exploration and glamour. In her time Jean Batten was one of the most famous people in the world.
Jean was born in Rotorua, New Zealand in 1909, A few weeks before her birth the French pilot Bleriot had become the first man to fly across the English Channel, and Battens mother Ellen cut out a related newspaper article and pinned it to the wall beside the newborn's cot. It is difficult to imagine what Ellen had in mind. She was a proto-feminist, an extrovert and a staunch admirer of the suffragettes. Whether Ellens ambitions for Jean with the clipping were specific or symbolic, it turned out her daughter was to follow Bleriot to the skies.
The clipping was but a sign of things to come. Throughout Jeans life her mother was to be her single greatest influence. The two were incredibly close. As Jean grew older she developed a mercenary attitude towards men, which was perhpas gleaned from Ellen, whose pride had been hurt by an unfaithful husband. Ellen was a strong, independent woman struggling to assert roles for herself beyond wife and mother.
Dreaming of the
Ellen was free-spirited and ambitious, with an aggressive determination that might in later times have been described as 'feminist'. These notions were amplified after her separation from Fred. She instilled in the young Jean the idea, radical for its time, that to succeed in the world she must compete with men in male pursuits. At that time flying was the most daring, dangerous and exciting activity on earth: modern, largely untested and spectacular. It was the most male of male pursuits. When Ellen started taking Jean to watch the flying boats at Kohimarama Harbour, the outings were as much for the mothers benefit as they were for the daughters. Jean's biographer Ian Mackersey says in his book Jean Batten Garbo of the Skies:
Jeans interest in flying grew. Fred and Jean went to hear Australian ace Charles Kingsford Smith speak at a celebratory dinner in Auckland in 1928 after his flight across the Pacific. Here she announced to her astounded father and the bemused Australian flying ace (who had stopped to chat to the pretty teenager) "I'm going to learn to fly."
interest became part of the fight between her warring
parents. As Mackersey notes, "[Fred] regarded the
whole notion [of Jean flying] as preposterous, 'It's far
too dangerous,' he said, recalling the many flying
accidents he had witnessed on the Western Front," and implying that such pursuits should be left to the
blokes. But Jean had other ideas. On a visit to
Australia in 1929 she persuaded Ellen to seek out Kingsford Smith to
take her for a flight in the
Southern Cross. Ellen agreed doing everything in her power
to support the teenager's flying aspirations.
|Learning to Fly
In 1930 Jean and Ellen left Auckland for London. The move was ostensibly to further Jeans musical education (she was a gifted pianist) but London was also the centre of the aviation world.
They first stayed with Jeans brother John, who had left New Zealand with a small allowance from Fred and was now building a career as a stage and film actor. At the time of their arrival he was filming the starring role in the major film Under the Greenwood Tree at Elstree Studios. Johns acting career had taken him from New Zealand to Australia and Los Angeles. He had earned some money in the United States but had lost much of it in the 1929 Wall Street Crash. While his screen roles were not to become historic, he was an actor of some repute during the 1930s and 40s. During World War II he served in the Royal Navy but was given six months leave to act in the Ealing Studios' wartime film For Those in Peril.
Shortly after her arrival in England Jean joined the London Aeroplane Club and started taking lessons at the Stag Lane aerodrome - gaining her 'A' (private) license in December 1931. By this time aviation was past its infancy and women flyers were not unusual. Jean said later that she took to flying like a penguin takes to water. Other flying pupils at the time remember her differently: ambitious and determined, but a slow learner and terrible at landings.
apprenticeship her publicly stated main focus was to be
the first person to fly between England and New Zealand. To those around
her this notion was patently ridiculous but she was undeterred. She applied herself
assiduosly and, after a brief return to New Zealand,
gained her commercial license in mid-1931.
Batten was resolute in her determination to complete the flight from England to New Zealand, and to achieve more than 'just' this. As Ian Mackersey says, she "had an almost messianic faith in herself, and an unshakeable conviction that she had a significant role to play in putting New Zealand womankind on the map". With this self-belief and sense of purpose came the notion that it was the duty of others to fund her flights. Despite the later. embroided self-depiction of her state of affairs, her own resources were meagre: The post-ware depression hit her father's Auckland dental practice hard and his allowances to her had dwindled to nothing. She had sold her piano and long since spent the proceeds.
But she still managed to fund
her way into the sky. Jean
attractive and was aware of her allure. On several occasions besotted men gave
her large sums
of money for her missions - in the case of Kiwi
RAF pilot Fred Truman, his entire life savings . Many
were under the impression Jean would marry them. She
aircraft Gipsy Moth G-AARB, 1934.
skills improved on a parallel with her powers of
persuasion. In 1932 she was virtually gifted a
second-hand Gipsy Moth bi-plane by the elegant, public-school educated
and infatuated Victor
Doree, who borrowed
the purchase price from his wealthy linen-merchant family. Such patronage was to set
Jean on the way to achieving all
her aspirations for fame and success.
It is hard to make a comparison between the long-distance aviators of the 1920s and 30s and today's glitterati, but in their time they were daredevils and heroes; real-life stars, celebrities made by the cinema newsreel and newspaper flash-bulb. Batten had won her commercial license, but was not interested in merely making flying her job. She wanted to break records. She wanted to be the object of adulation.
In 1933 she left England to fly to Australia. English aviatrix Amy Johnson had made it in 20 days three years earlier and Batten had to break that record. She wanted to make it in 14 days.
It didnt happen on the first attempt, engine failure in India bringing the mission to an untimely end. This was the first time Jean had flown away from England and the first time she had flown over the sea or the desert, which were no small feats in the tiny, flimsy bi-plane. But for Jean Batten it was failure and a pot-hole on the road to destiny.
attempt ended even closer to England. She ran out of
petrol over Italy and had to make a dangerous emergency
landing between Rome and Marseilles. With the plane
slightly damaged in the landing she was grounded in Italy
for a week, thus destroying any chance of breaking Amy
Johnsons record. She returned to England.
England to Australia
Jean took off again on May 8th 1934: destination Australia. Battling the elements, she reached Darwin in 14 days and 22 hours, not quite a day longer than her stated goal but smashing Amy Johnsons time by five days.
Charles Kingsford-Smith now had cause to remember Battens fateful declaration of six years earlier, and would wryly regret the two pieces of advice he'd offered "Don't attempt to break men's records - and don't fly at night." Of course, as Batten was often to repeat, "I made a point of ignoring both of them." She received a hero's welcome in Australia, and although she travelled by sea to New Zealand (the Gipsy Moth would not have made it across the vast Tasman Sea) the welcome at home was rapturous.
Batten made a six week aerial tour of New Zealand. She gave speeches and attended civic functions, the célébritée du jour.
She flew back
to England from Australia, the first woman to make the
return flight. Again she gave talks and attended
receptions in her honour. She was employed to give talks
accompanying an RAF recruitment film an unprecedented move, as at that time such employment was a
bastion of male privelege.
flying over Brooklands, England
Thanks to earnings from her two successful flights - proceeds of her overflowing lecture/cinema tours, fees from Gaumont British and the Express, and a major endorsement deal with Castrol (advertisements with Batten's image began to appear with the slogan "If there were a better oil than Wakefield Castrol I should use it") - Batten was able to upgrade the Gipsy Moth. With the help of a generous cheque of £1000 from Lord Wakefield after her Australia flight she bought a Percival Gull monoplane. With its lightweight metal propeller, hydraulic brakes (the Moth had no brakes), an automatic petrol pump, landing flaps, a 200 hp engine and an extra fuel tank, the Gull was the machine Batten would break new records in.
Jean Batten running checks on one of her
refuelling stops en-route to
Jean Batten at
Rongotai Airport, Wellington, NZ c.1936
|Now very much the
object of public fascination in England, Australia and
New Zealand, Batten was preparing for another
long-distance flight. this time across the South Atlantic between West Africa and
Brazil. The record time for
the route, 85 hours and 20 minutes, was held by Scotsman
Jim Mollison. Mollison enjoyed a dandyish reputation and
was self-described as the flying playboy. His
practice of consuming large quantities of brandy before,
during and after long distance flights was legendary.
Batten took off from France for Casablanca on November 11, 1935, landing at her destination nine and a half hours later - an unintentional record. Then on to Thies in Senegal, from where she would leave for South America. Freak storms over the Equator made the Gulls instruments go haywire and, with the compass out of action, Jean was convinced she was off course. It was only when the weather cleared and she saw cargo vessels on shipping routes that she knew she was heading in the right direction.
She made Port Natal, Brazil, in 61 hours and 15 minutes, almost a day faster than Mollison.
The receptions she had been honoured with in Australia and New Zealand were repeated in South America, taking the levels of hero worship to new heights. In Brazil she was awarded the Order of the Southern Cross, an honour never before given to a member of the British Empire who was not of royal birth. She was made an honorary member of the air force in three countries and 'the dashing and fearless aviator' was rushed by crowds of well-wishers everywhere she went.
She was, by
now, one of the most famous aviatrixes in the world and the public
waited anxiously for the announcement of her next feat.
They were not to be disappointed. It was a flight from
England to Auckland: across the world to the edge of the
Jean Batten with Percival Gull c.1936
|She took off on the 5th
of October 1936. It was 3.30am when, bathed in autumn moonlight she walked out to her
aeroplane, but there was already an enormous crowd of
reporters, newsreel cameramen, photographers and fans
gathered to see her off. As she crossed the English
Channel the frightening enormity of the flight dawned on
her: 14,000 miles, including 1300 miles over the
The Percival Gull
performed brilliantly. She made Australia in six days, lwhich was ess than half the time it
had taken in the Gipsy Moth
three years earlier, setting a new solo record. Her second touchdown
in Sydney rivalled her first as adoring crowds came out
en masse. Not content to merely fly across the
world, Batten made sure she was always glamorous, so fostering and encouraging the popular perception of her
as the Garbo of the Skies. She always brought
evening dresses with her for receptions and would emerge
from the cockpit after long flights wearing makeup and
dressed in a white flying suit.
wearing her renowned white flying suit c.1936
wanted her to stay, she was determined to cross the
Tasman. In the days leading up to her departure she had
been criticised in a newspaper editorial for undertaking
the flight because of the time and money it would cost to
rescue her if she crashed. She replied with
a short statement designed, through gallantry and
sacrifice, to override the pettiness of the original
She took off at 4.40am, October 16, 1936. The flight took 10 and a half hours, during which time thousands on both sides of the Tasman held their breath, waiting between regular news updates of her flight.
She said later
that she almost "lost her nerve" flying across
the Tasman. Encountering terrible weather, she was
convinced she was off course. She did not see land until
she was almost over it, and before she reached the
Taranaki coast she had practically given up hope, despite
her instruments telling her she was still on course.
the Final Destination
News of Battens touchdown at Auckland airport caused 13 miles of traffic jams as New Zealanders welcomed home their adventurous daughter. Returning to her birth place of Rotorua she was once again guest of honour of local Maori, as she had been after the 1934 journey. She was gifted a chiefs feather cloak and given the title Hine-o-te-Rangi "Daughter of the Skies".
After several months
rest in New Zealand and Australia she flew back to
England. She made the trip in five days and 18 hours; she now held the world record
in both directions. Yet she had decided that this would
be her last long distance flight. She was happy with her
achievements, and the flying world also recognised what
she had achieved. In 1938 she was awarded the medal of
the Federation Aeronautique Internationale,
aviations highest honour, being the first woman to
who was presented to Their Majesties at the second Court
on May 12, 1936 by Mrs W J Jordon, wife of the New
Zealand High Commissioner. Her gown was of satin of
eau de nil tint and embroidered with seed pearls and
|During World War II
Batten gave lecture tours, with her fees going to the war
effort. There is some mystery as to why she was never accepted into the
Air Transport Auxiliary. Possibly it was due to double vision incurred in an
earlier crash, or perhaps because she wasn't a team player. Whatever
it was, the war signalled the end of Battens long distance
flying adventures, and the end of Batten in the public
After the ware she
lived in Jamaica and then Spain. She continued
to live with Ellen until her mothers death in 1965, the devotion
of both women growing stronger with
the years. When Ellen died Jean sent a rare note to her
brother Harold, mother and daughter having kept no regular
correspondence with the male members of the family.
Harold later showed the note to Jean's estranged brother John,
who said "she and mother were
so close, it must have been like husband and wife. She
must have been desolate".
Batten with her mother, Ellen. 12 December 1936.
|Jean Battens last
visit to New Zealand was in 1977 where she was guest
of honour at the opening of the Aviation Pioneers
Pavilion at Auckland's Museum of Transport and Technology in
Auckland. It would be the last time many heard of her.
After the visit she returned to Spain, living a quiet,
reclusive existence; but the influence of Ellen would
stay with her the rest of her life.
Because of her reclusiveness in later life, it was over a year before those who had kept up some form of correspondence with Batten, on not hearing from her, began to worry. It was 1983. Not only her beauty and stellar celebrity, but also her eccentric and withdrawn habits had come to mirror her cinematic counterpart, Greta Garbo. It was accepted that Batten wanted 'to be alone'.
At the instigation of Batten's London publisher, Bob Pooley, some cursory investigations were advanced by the New Zealand Government. These inquiries and those of her remaining family were slowed by a real concern not to invade Batten's private world, and they proved fruitless. Despite some media speculation about her whereabouts, it would take four and half years and the tireless detective work of documentary film-makers Ian and Caroline Mackersey, to uncover the mystery and bureaucratic obfuscation that hid Batten's lonely death. In 1987 the Mackerseys discovered that she had died in Majorca, of complications following a minor dog bite. The bite had become infected, but Batten refused antibiotics or other medication, believing like her mother in the healing power of positive thought.The site of her unmarked grave was later found in Palma. This bizarre end hinted at the sad and elusive private life behind the fame, beauty and achievement. It was an tragic demise that could only serve to further the Batten legend.
A plaque now rests on the wall above the ignominious paupers' grave where she is buried. The Times (London) paid tribute to her fame and daring in a major obituary, and Auckland International Airport bears her name.
took New Zealand from the edge - "A magnificent woman
and her flying machine." - With determination and
skill she took on the elements in a dynamic and unexplored new technology,
in the process making the world seem smaller, and linking New Zealand with
that world in a more tangible way
than ever before. She captured the imagination of an age
and her feats of daring broke barriers of distance, time
relaxing in Wellington, New Zealand, at age 60,
information about Battens aircraft:
Another great website on
Batten is provided through Monash University:
autobiography, My Life, as well as lots of great pictures, is
now available on-line at:
biography is Ian Mackersey's superbly researched and
fascinating, Jean Batten: Garbo of the Skies,
(1990) Macdonald & Co, UK
Also see Mackersey's
on-line DNZB entry at:
Others works used:
Laine, Shirley. (1989), Silver Wings: New Zealand Woman Aviators, Grantham House, New Zealand
Batten, Jean. (1938), My Life, George Harrap & Co., UK
Batten, Jean. (1934), Solo Flight, Jackson & OSullivan Ltd, Australia
Ann. (1999), "Jean Batten: Hine o te Rangi, Daughter
of the Skies", Memories, no. 20, Vol. 3,
IP HOLDINGS LIMITED 1998-2011.
Aitken | Alda | Alley
| Atack | Batten | Bowen |