Jean Batten ('Hine-O-Te-Rangi' ) - the Garbo of the Skies Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Jean Batten ('Hine-O-Te-Rangi' ) - the Garbo of the Skies

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Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

This is the 21st Century. The adventurers that set out to conquer the few remaining tracts of forbidding wilderness go fully equipped with tried and tested equipment, designed for the terrain they wish to traverse. They embark on their quest, secure in the knowledge that their fellow-men will be on hand to assist them should they need rescue. The rescuers will be able to draw on a range of devices from artificial satellites to custom designed rescue machinery to help them in their work.

A century ago, when the technology that we take for granted now was either unthought of, or unavailable, it took a genuinely intrepid spirit to venture into dangerous, uncharted territories. Sea and land had been mapped and charted, and the final un-known was the sky. For precisely this reason, it held an unswerving fascination for adventurers, and they responded magnificently to the challenge. Criss-crossing the dangerous vault in rickety contraptions that were the forerunners of today's luxurious aircraft, they blazed a glorious trail that has benefited the whole of mankind. They were the pioneer aviators.

One of the most illustrious among them came from New Zealand. She was Jean Gardner Batten, who the Maori, mighty warriors and proven explorers themselves, were to dub with awe and admiration Hine-O-Te-Rangi (the 'Daughter of the Skies').

A Star Is Born

On 25 July, 1909, a big, bluff, moustachioed Frenchman took off in his Model 'X' monoplane from Les Barraques, France, and flew it through inclement weather over the 22 miles of English Channel to Dover, England, in 40 minutes. This record generated a lot of media interest, and Bleriot's photograph crossed the Indian Ocean to reach the town of Rotorua, New Zealand, where it was cut out of the newspaper and pinned above the cot of a little girl, born two months before the flight. The little girl was the daughter of a dentist by the name of Frederick Harold Batten, and his wife, Ellen 'Nellie' Blackmore. The girl was originally christened Jane after her grandmother, but the name managed to evolve into Jean.

Early Life in Rotorua

She was the fourth child of the family and had two elder brothers. A third had died in his infancy. She was a tiny and frail infant who was fussed over by all in her family, and she became especially close to her mother, who was a fascinating woman in her own right. Born of the first nation in the world to implement women's suffrage, she was a high-spirited lady who broke new ground in advocating women's rights. She scintillated as the main influence that stood by Jean through the inevitable adversity that she went through in pursuit of her dreams.

Early Life in Auckland

The family moved to Auckland city in 1913 when Jean was four. When she turned five, she was enrolled in the Melmerley Ladies' School in the suburb of Parnell. The Great War broke out in 1914 and like so many other heroic Kiwis, her father went to battle it out with the Kaiser's armies in the killing fields of Europe. The next few years saw the family's finances take a sharp downturn due to Frederick's absence and the loss of income that this entailed. Ellen, quintessential woman that she was, steered the family through the dire straits successfully. In addition to making sure that the family never slipped below the bread line, she also succeeded in maintaining the level of her daughter's welfare and development.

In 1915, the brothers Leo and Vivian Walsh flew the first flying boat on Auckland Harbour and later formed the New Zealand Flying School at Kohimarama Harbourin Mission Bay. Their aim was to train flying-boat pilots for war service. Accompanied by her mother, little Jean was a regular visitor to Mission Bay to watch the machines roar into the sky, defying the force of gravity with seemingly contemptuous ease. She was, apparently, also quite enthralled by the feats of other aviators of the time like the Australian, Bert Hinkler, and the British pilots, Alcock and Brown.

In 1919, her father returned to the fold, but there was no amelioration in the family. For various personal reasons, her parents fell out in a series of acrimonious fights and separated after a year. The family split up, with Jean electing to go with her beloved mother and her brothers going with their father.


Jean, with the help of funds from her father, enrolled in the Ladies College in Remuera, another suburb of Auckland. According to later accounts, she excelled in many subjects and won prizes in various disciplines there. Jean was now a pretty teenager who showed all signs of blossoming into the breathtakingly lovely woman she would later become. She also acquired a reputation of being a very private individual, walking a solitary path.

In 1924, taking a step that followed the normal career trend for women in those days, she enrolled in a secretarial school and also took ballet and piano classes. She proved to be a gifted pianist and a talented ballet dancer, and seemed set to follow the path that the rest of the population had hacked through.

'Lucky Lindy' and 'Smithy'

In 1927, the plucky American aviator, Charles 'Lucky Lindy' Lindbergh piloted a Ryan NYP monoplane with the moniker The Spirit Of St Louis across the Atlantic. The following year, Charles Kingsford ('Smithy') Smith , an Australian RFC bomber pilot, showed that the Pacific was no great hindrance for his Fokker Tri-motor Southern Cross.

These glorious affairs fired Jean's interest in flying and she managed to persuade her father to take her to a celebratory dinner in Auckland to which Smith was the guest of honour. Little did the great man know that the sweet girl was in deadly earnest when she announced to him and her father that she was going to learn to fly. Her father, having witnessed a multitude of flying accidents in the dark days of the Great War (1914 - 1918), considered the whole idea ludicrous. But her mother was not to be put off by what she must have considered trivial perils. She took her daughter to Australia where she somehow wrangled a flight with Smith in his Southern Cross. This experience changed Jean's views radically again. Now, not only did she want to fly, she also wanted to be renowned for it.

The Rough Road

Early in 1930 Jean, accompanied by her mother, sailed to England so that she could take flying lessons. She joined the London Aeroplane Club, taking lessons at the Stag Lane Aerodrome, while staying with her brother John, a well known actor. In December that year, she attained the very first British Air Ministry 'A' Licence granted to a New Zealand woman.

Not one to rest on her laurels, in 1931, she immediately began raising money to fund her goal of beating the solo England to Australia flight record. Set by Amy Johnson earlier in the year, Jean Batten was deliberately attempting to attract the attention of the media by comparing herself to an already famous figure. Part of the fund-raising necessitated a trip to New Zealand. Given the failing economical climate of the country at that time, she was met with little luck. She returned to England, seeking an improved 'B' licence in the hope that she would be taken more seriously by any prospective sponsors. At this point, for reasons that are not very clear, she apparently had a heated quarrel with her brother and moved out of his house. She moved into a bedsit, which has been described as 'seedy' by some of her chroniclers.

Knights in Shining Armour?

The 'B' licence that she craved came at a rather high price - £500 sterling to be precise. As providence would have it, a New Zealand pilot serving with the RAF by name Fred Truman fell deeply in love with her at this juncture. The love-struck fighter-pilot made a grand gesture to prove his love by withdrawing his life's savings and surrendering it at the feet of the woman he seemingly worshipped, expecting in return only her acquiescence to his impending proposal of matrimony. But, not one to be fettered by the ties of home and hearth, Jean took his money, gained her 'B' licence in December 1932, and walked out of his life, making no effort to pay him back. It probably shows the strength of Fred's love for her, in that he did not pursue the matter further or cause her any embarrassment after she became world famous later in life. That, or he did not wish to appear foolish. He was, as we shall see, the first in a series of lovers who would fund her projects.

The next man in her life was a young Englishman by name Victor Dorée, who bought her a De Havilland Gipsy Moth DH-60 using £400 sterling that he borrowed from his family, who were wealthy linen merchants.

She used this aircraft in April 1933 on an attempt to beat Amy Johnson's time to Australia. She was threatened by a sandstorm over Iraq, which sent her little moth into a dangerous spin from which she recovered with great difficulty and landed safely. She slept under the wing overnight and started off again the next morning for Australia, but was brought down again by another sandstorm over Baluchistan. The defiant aviatrix dusted off everything that Mother Nature threw at her and took off again for the southern continent. However, her poor old DH60, that had already done at least 100,000 miles, did not share her enthusiasm for riding roughshod over the forces of nature and it's engine gave up over Karachi, where it was wrecked as she tried to land at the airfield.

With the help of Lord Wakefield, the head of the Castrol Oil Company, a sponsor of aviation related events, she and her DH60 returned to England. She tried to persuade Dorée to buy her another Moth, but Dorée was having none of it, and their relationship ended.

She then got engaged to London stockbroker Edward Walter. But she was still looking for a way to acquire a new aircraft in which she could take another stab at beating Amy Johnson's now-three-year-old record. Impressed by the grit and determination she had displayed in her first attempt, and a letter of introduction from Sir Geoffrey De Havilland, Lord Wakefield again came to her rescue by buying her another DH60 for £240 sterling. This craft rejoiced under the registration of G-AARB.

In April 1934, she took off for Australia again. However, this trip ended in disaster nearer to home as she ran out of fuel on the outskirts of Rome and had to crash-land after weaving through a maze of radio masts in semi-darkness, almost severing her lip. As she had to spend the week in Italy, the chances of breaking Amy's record were gone and she had the DH60 repaired and flew back to England.

The Sweet Taste of Success

On the 8 May, 1934, the indomitable girl borrowed the lower wings of Walter's own DH60 and struck out for Australia for the third time. 14 days and 22 and a half hours later, the little biplane roared in to land in Darwin, Australia, to a tumultuous welcome, having beaten Amy's record by about four days. She had finally achieved the world celebrity status she had been working for.

In the series of grants and lectures that followed, the beautiful girl impressed everyone with her charm, poise and ability on both sides of the Tasman Sea, which she crossed by boat. She never failed to credit her mother with being the inspiration for her success, and it was to her mother that she sent the famous telegram that read; 'Darling we've done it. The aeroplane, you, me.'

While in Sydney, she met and fell in love with an Australian airline pilot by name Beverly Shepherd and promptly broke off her engagement to Walter, who responded by sending her a bill for the wings she borrowed from him.

Because her declared aspiration was to be ranked alongside the greatest people in aviation, she did not remain in the antipodes for long.

She flew back to England in the same aircraft, G-AARB, at the end of 1935, and in the process became the first pilot to fly from England to Australia and back again. She moved into the upper crust of British society and basked in the adulations of the media and the international aviation community. She was employed by the RAF to give talks accompanying recruitment films, which was quite an achievement given the chauvinistic attitudes of those days. She was also presented to King Edward VIII by the wife of the High Commissioner of New Zealand, to be invested with the CBE.

Exit the Moth and Enter the Gull

In the same year, she bought the most famous of her aircraft, a Percival Gull 6 registered as G-ADPR, for £1750 sterling. In contrast to her earlier DH60s, the Gull was a monoplane and incorporated most of what was at the cutting edge of small plane technology in those times. Incorporating advanced features like lightweight metal propellers, hydraulic brakes, automatic petrol pump, extra fuel, landing flaps and a powerful 200hp engine, this aircraft was the most advanced and expensive she had flown. And in this aircraft, she set about cementing her place amongst the stars of the aviation world.

The Flower of the Sky

Then followed a long series of flights in which she uncharacteristically broke more records than hearts. She flew from West Africa to Brazil (a 1900-mile journey), in bad weather, equipped only with her watch, a compass and a map. This feat earned her a Order of the Southern Cross, the first ever awarded to a person not of royal birth. The dashing aviatrix was even made a honorary member of three air forces!

For a while, she rented a cottage near Hatfield, Hertfordshire, England with her mother, and effectively disappeared from public view. This would be one of the first inklings of her soon to be famous secretive nature that later earned her the epithet 'The Garbo of the Skies'.

On 16 October, 1936, she came out of seclusion in a spectacular fashion, to make the much-awaited flight from England to Auckland, New Zealand. New Zealand responded to its most famous daughter magnificently. When she landed in Mangere Airport, she caused a 13 mile traffic jam on the roads leading to it. When she visited her place of birth, Rotorua, she was presented with a chief's feather cloak and awarded the title Hine-O-Te-Rangi ('Daughter of the Skies') by the Arawa tribe of the mighty Maori.

Soon afterwards, she accumulated a whole bouquet of international honours including the Britannia Trophy, the Harmon International Trophy, the Freedom of the City of London, and the Medal of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale to mention but a few.

She never neglected the value of style and elegance, and took great pains to ensure that she always showed her best face to the world. She always brought evening dresses along with her for attending receptions She always refreshed her make-up before emerging from the Gull in her trademark white flying dress. It is quite hard to find an archived picture of her looking dishevelled or otherwise the worse for wear. Such is the importance of the small details that go into the creation of an enduring legend. In 1938, she wrote her memoirs entitled My Life.

The Second World War

In September 1939, the greatest conflict in the field of human history broke out while Jean was in Sweden on a lecture tour. She received special permission from the Lufwaffe to use German airspace to fly her Gull back to England.

Unlike Amy Johnson, who took active part in the Air Transport Auxiliary and was killed while on duty, Jean was not allowed to fly and her Gull was requisitioned for the war effort by the RAF. She spent the war driving an ambulance for the Anglo-French Ambulance Corps and giving lectures around Britain to raise money for the war effort.

During this time, She fell in love with an RAF Bomber pilot who she refers to only as 'Richard' in her unpublished memoirs. But as luck would have it, Richard, the only man she appeared willing to marry, was killed in action over Europe.

The Final Years

The war spelled the effective end of her flying adventures. The giant strides made in the field of technology during the war made flying to remote corners of the world a matter of course.

In 1946, she went with her mother to live in Jamaica, where she counted Noel Coward amongst her select group of friends. In 1953, she and her mother returned to Europe where they spent the next seven years on a nomadic motor tour.

In 1960, they bought a villa in Los Boliches near Malaga, Spain, and settled down. They left for Madeira in 1965 for an extended holiday. During this holiday her mother died, at the age of 87, in Tenerife. Refusing to leave her mother's bones alone there, Jean bought a tiny apartment in Puerto de la Cruz which became her home for the next 16 years.

In 1969, 1970 and 1977, she made brief forays to England and New Zealand amidst a blaze of publicity created by the press. But the world had changed a lot in the last 30 years, and most people were unaware of her fame. Her charisma, though, was still strong. Rumoured to have had an affair with a company executive in New Zealand, and a few marriage proposals as well, she evidently enjoyed her 60s.

In1982, she packed up and left for England (staying with her publisher), but soon left for Majorca again, whereupon she disappeared from public view completely for about five years.

In 1987, it emerged that she had died on 22 November, 1982, aged 73. She had succumbed to a pulmonary abscess caused by a dog bite. Jean was buried in a pauper' mass grave in Palma.

Thus ended the saga of the courageous, skilful, beautiful (and absolutely ruthless) aviatrix from the edge of the British Empire. Her name lives on most prominently in the International terminal of Auckland Airport which is named after her. The Museum of Transportation and Technology in Auckland also created a pavilion in honour of her achievements.

Related BBC Links

  • Read the thoughts of Jean Batten's nephew, Rick Batten.

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