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Monday 30 September 2013

From Typist to World Record-Breaking Aviatrix: Jean Gardner Batten

Like Ettie Annie Rout, the safe-sex pioneer I posted on yesterday, and a more direct contemporary, Mildred Ella "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias, the greatest all-round athlete in sports history, fearless 1930s New Zealand aviatrix Jean Gardner Batten was one of those “get-up-and-go” women who often relied on the typewriting skills she had developed at school to help get her where she wanted to go.
And wherever she went, typewriters were always close at hand for Jean Batten. As Jean became world famous, her daring feats followed by an avid worldwide audience, she used typewriters to instantly write replies to her fans and followers across the globe.
Finally, in the late 1960s, sitting alone in a tiny apartment in Puerto de la Cruz on Tenerife in the Canary Islands, she used a typewriter one last time – to write her ultimate book, her never-to-be-published memoirs.
Thirty years earlier, where Jean had wanted to go was around the world, several times, very, very quickly, each time in her own single-seater aircraft. But that sort of ambition cost an awful lot of money to realise in the 30s. And Jean had to explore and exploit many avenues in order to find it – including the extent to which her alluring beauty would encourage normally level-headed men to give her non-refundable cash. She also wrote typescripts for books about her adventures, including Solo Flight (1934) and Alone in the Skies and My Life (1938).
A Maori greeting in her hometown of Rotorua
In her homeland, she was called “Hine-o-te-Rangi” – “Daughter of the Skies”. In South America she was dubbed “the flower of the sky”. For all that, however, Jean was often fond of disappearing from the limelight for long periods, and with this reclusiveness was to become more commonly known across the world as the “Greta Garbo of the Skies”.
Yet for someone who had once commanded headlines in newspapers from Washington to Wellington and back again, and caused 13-mile traffic jams in Auckland, her lonely death at the age of 73, in a small hotel room in Palma on the island of Majorca on November 22, 1982, was quite astonishing. Mostly because it took FIVE YEARS before the world – including her own surviving family and friends - knew this once internationally lauded aviation pioneer was dead! All that time she had been buried, anonymously, in a Palma paupers’ mass grave. Whatever small fortune she had accumulated from her books and lifetime achievements (assets of more than £100,000) lay untouched in a London bank.
A few days before she died, Jean had been bitten by a dog while on her daily walk around Palma. The wound turned septic, spreading infection to her lungs. But Jean refused to allow hotel staff to get medical help, firmly believing that the power of positive thought would bring her through the crisis. It didn’t. She died of a pulmonary abscess.
Regarded universally as one of the great international aviators of the 1930s, Jean Gardner Batten was born on  September 15, 1909, in Rotorua, New Zealand. On the wall beside her cot, her mother Ellen had pinned a newspaper photo of the French pilot Louis Blériot, who had just  become the first man to fly across the English Channel – a statement that her newborn daughter's generation would be capable of similar achievements. The Battens knew how to reach their goals: Jean’s brother John, six years her senior, had gone to Australia and Los Angeles, then London, becoming a long-serving movie star, including in Hollywood.
As for the unflappable, utterly courageous Jean, she developed “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”. Ellen encouraged Jean to become a high achiever in a masculine world, something Ellen had wanted to do herself.
After the family had moved to Auckland in 1913, Ellen took Jean to Kohimarama Harbour (Mission Bay) to watch the Walsh brothers' flying boats, in which pilots were being trained for World War I service.
At the end of 1924, soon after her 15th birthday, Jean enrolled at a secretarial school. But whatever visions she may have had of a career based on using typewriters, in May 1927 her ambitions dramatically changed.
1924, aged 15
Inspired by Charles Lindbergh's solo non-stop crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, she yearned to fly, an aim her mother encouraged. The next year, with her father Fred, Jean went to hear Australian ace Charles Kingsford Smith speak at a celebratory dinner in Auckland after his flight across the Pacific. She announced to her astounded father and the bemused Australian pilot (who had stopped to chat to the pretty teenager) “I’m going to learn to fly.” Kingsford Smith would offer Jean two bits of advice: “Don’t attempt to break men’s records – and don’t fly at night.” Jean later recalled, “I made a point of ignoring both of them.”
In 1929 Ellen took Jean to Sydney and arranged for her to fly with Kingsford Smith in his tri-motor Southern Cross. The experience made her more than ever determined to become a pilot – and a famous one, competing on equal terms with men.
Early in 1930, Jean sailed with her mother to England. She learnt to fly at the London Aeroplane Club at Stag Lane aerodrome and gained her 'A' licence in December. Almost immediately she began to plan a solo flight from England to Australia, in an attempt to break the 19½-day women’s record set earlier that year by the English pilot Amy Johnson
Hoping to attract a corporate sponsor, Jean decided to train for a commercial pilot's licence. To fund the 100 hours' flying this required, she borrowed £500 from Fred Truman, a young New Zealand pilot then serving with the Royal Air Force. He wanted to marry her, but Jean had no intention of doing so. When she gained her 'B' licence in December 1932 she walked out on him, making no attempt to repay him. Instead she turned to Victor Dorée, the son of a prosperous English linen merchant, who was also infatuated with her. He borrowed £400 from his mother and bought Jean a de Havilland Gipsy Moth.
In April 1933 Jean set off from England in an attempt to beat Johnson's time to Australia. But caught in a sandstorm over Iraq, she lost control and went into a spin. Recovering just in time, she landed in the desert and spent the night sleeping under the wing. The next day, over Balúchistán, she hit another sandstorm and was forced down again. On resuming her flight she suffered engine failure and wrecked the aircraft trying to land near Karachi. Miraculously, she crawled out uninjured.
 Calcutta 1934
Back in London, Jean tried to persuade Dorée to buy her another plane. When he refused she ended the relationship. She had meanwhile turned to the Castrol Oil company, whose head, Lord Charles Wakefield, was impressed by her grit and glamour. He agreed to sponsor her and gave her a cheque for £1000, from which she bought a second-hand Gipsy Moth for £240. 
Batten, now engaged to London stockbroker Edward Walter, set off in April 1934 on her second attempt to fly to Australia. It also ended in disaster. On the outskirts of Rome she ran out of fuel in the dark and flew into a maze of radio masts. Lucky to survive, she crash-landed with great skill, almost severing her lip.
Jean had the Moth repaired and flew back to England. She borrowed the lower wings from Walter's own aeroplane, and just two days later she set out again. This time she made it to Darwin in 14 days 22½ hours, shattering Johnson's record by more than four days. Overnight she became a world celebrityJean flew the Moth back to England, thus becoming the first woman pilot to fly from England to Australia and back.
In search of a new challenge, Jean bought a new cabin monoplane, a Percival Gull 6, for £2000, and in November 1935 flew from England to South America. She first flew to France, then Casablanca, landing at her destination 9 ½ hours later – an unintentional record. Then she flew on to Thies in Senegal, from where she left for South America.
Freak storms over the Equator made the Gull’s 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, 15 minutes.
It was a brilliant feat of navigation. She had made the 1900-mile with uncanny accuracy, establishing world absolute records for the ocean crossing and the overall flight.
In October 1936 Jean the longest of all her great journeys: the first-ever direct flight from England to New Zealand in 11 days, 45 minutes.
She then flew the Gull from Australia to England in 5 days, 18 hours, establishing a solo record (for pilots of either sex), and becoming the first person to hold simultaneously England-Australia solo records in both directions. This, at 28, was Jean Batten's finest hour. It was also her last long-distance flight. By 1938, when she was awarded the medal of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, aviation’s highest honour, the first woman to receive it, her solo flying days were over.
In 1946 Jean and her mother Ellen went to live in Jamaica (they were described by one of Jean’s brothers as living most of their lives like husband and wife).  They made friends selectively; one was Noël Coward. In 1953 the Battens returned to England and began a nomadic motor tour of Europe that was to last seven years. It was not until 1960 that they finally took root, buying a villa in the small Spanish fishing village of Los Boliches, near Málaga. They lived there quietly for six years, until, at the end of 1965, they set off on what was to have been an extended winter holiday to Madeira, the Canary Islands and North Africa. However, in July 1966 Ellen died in Jean's arms at San Marcos, Tenerife; she was 89. Jean became ill with protracted grief. She bought a tiny apartment in Puerto de la Cruz. On Tenerife, which was to be her home for 16 years, she kept to herself, typing her memoirs, swimming alone each day in the harbour and walking about the town, always shielding her face under a wide-brimmed hat. Her depression lasted more than three years. 
1970 in Auckland
At the end of 1969 she made a dramatic return to public life. With a facelift, hair dyed jet black and wearing a miniskirt, Batten flew to London and re-immersed herself in the aviation world. Many people had believed her already dead. But to her disappointment, most had never heard of her. In 1970 she flew back to New Zealand, where she was fêted, demonstrating her fitness at 61 by doing high ballet kicks. Back on Tenerife Jean was too restless to settle. Her apartment there now became a base for 10 years of world travel. She claimed to have received two fresh proposals of marriage in her 60s and had a brief affair with a company executive in New Zealand, where she returned in 1977 with her hair now startlingly dyed blonde.


Bill M said...

Very interesting person. I wonder why more was not written about her in the States. (at least this is the first I have heard of her and I used to do quite a bit of flying)

TonysVision said...

What a fascinating woman. And I've never heard of her. My fault for living in America, I guess, where we only know of Anne Morrow Lindberg and Amelia Earhart.