Jean Batten - The incredible, overlooked story of an aviatrix
On May 23, 1934, a small crowd accompanied by a single news crew gathered at Darwin airport awaiting the arrival of Jean Batten. Only hours earlier the 24-year-old New Zealand aviator had departed Kupang, Indonesia, on what was the final 520-mile leg of her record-breaking attempt flying from England to Australia.
Just after midday Jean reached Australia and landed at Darwin shortly afterward. She had done it! Jean Batten completed the epic journey in 14 days, 23 hours, and 53 minutes, a new female solo record having beaten the previous record set by Amy Johnson by nearly 5 days.
Jean Gardner Batten
Jean Batten, was born in Rotorua, New Zealand on September 15, 1909, and the Batten family moved to Auckland in 1913. Jean’s mother Ellen, was a strong-minded woman, always encouraging Jean to make her place in a predominantly man's world. It is said that Ellen placed a newspaper cutout of French aviator Louis Blériot - having just flown the English Channel - above Jean’s cot.
Jean’s passion for aviation began after following Charles Lindbergh and his flights across the Atlantic, stirring childhood memories of trips with her mother to watch seaplanes at the flight school at Kohimarama, Auckland. Later when Charles Kingsford Smith flew from Australia to New Zealand, Jean met him at his reception in Auckland. It was during this meeting that she made it known of her desire to learn to fly and in 1929 she took a flight with Kingsford Smith whilst on a trip in Sydney.
By the spring of 1930, Jean had sold her piano and raised the money to pay for herself and her mother to travel to London. She joined the London Aeroplane Club, but flying did not come naturally to Jean, and due to the cost, her progress was slow as she and her mother used their earnings to pay for the flying lessons. Jean gained her pilot ‘A’ license on 5th December 1930.
The 1930s were hard times and, short of money to fund this expensive dream, Jean returned to New Zealand. Still determined to realize her flying ambitions, she joined Auckland Aero Club, and with the help of her father, resumed flight training and took lessons in navigation. Seeing Amy Johnson's record-breaking flight, Batten soon set herself the challenge of besting it. The only way to achieve such an expensive flight was to gain a sponsor, and so she traveled once again to London, aiming through further training to get her ‘B’ license.
The First Attempts…
Determined her limited resources wouldn’t restrict her flying dreams, Batten used her connections from the London Aeroplane Club, whose members were often backed by wealthy families, to source the funds for her Australia flight attempt.
On April 9, 1933, flying the Gipsy Moth she had purchased with a £400 loan, Jean commenced the 16,900km trip to Australia. On her journey in the single engine plane, she became the first solo female to fly from England to Italy non-stop.
She flew through severe turbulence and heavy cloud over Syria and through a sandstorm over Iraq. In one sandstorm Jean entered a spin, losing control of the aircraft, she recovered from the spin just in time and landed in the desert, sleeping under the wing before continuing the next day.
Jean was nearing Karachi, Pakistan, when her engine failed. Alone and gliding back down to earth she attempted a forced landing, but the aircraft flipped over on impact. Miraculously Jean escaped unharmed and despite her great efforts her endeavor was at an end.
With no financial assistance, it seemed a second attempt at the Australia record was out of reach, until funds of £500 were secured from Charles Wakefield, founder of Castrol, who admired Jean’s tenacity. Jean was able to buy a secondhand Gipsy Moth.
On April 21, 1934, Jean set off again for Australia. Weather conditions were poor, but she continued. At Marseilles, she decided to fly with less reserve fuel to lighten the weight of the plane on takeoff from the boggy airfield. However, during the flight, there were stronger than expected headwinds and so the fuel onboard was not enough for the extra flight time.
In darkness over Rome her engine cut-out and once again she was gliding to the ground. The forced landing seriously damaged the aircraft breaking the wing struts and the propeller. Jean herself also suffered a severe cut on her face. Batten sourced new parts and the aircraft was repaired free of charge, in a nod to her courage.
The Third Attempt
On May 8, 1934, only two days after she arrived back from her failed second attempt, with new wings borrowed from fellow aviators Jean Batten, as tenacious as ever, departed for Australia. Flying solo at just 24 years old, Jean battled all the elements thrown at her on the incredible journey across the globe. From fog to dense cloud, she courageously flew through the monsoon in Burma known to aviators of the time as the “wall of death” and pressed on when dealing with ash from a volcanic eruption en-route.
There is no doubt that her successful landing in Darwin and her glorious record-breaking flight was down to her sheer perseverance to succeed. Jean Batten was an instant celebrity making headlines around the world. After Darwin she flew on to Sydney, where she was greeted mid-air by 20 aircraft flying above the Sydney Harbour.
Jean Batten's aviation success and inspiration continued. In April 1935 she set a women’s solo record from Australia to England, becoming the first woman ever to make a return flight.
In November 1935 she flew from England to Brazil, over 8,000km in 61 hours and 15 minutes, setting an all-time world record. During this trip she also set a new record for the fastest crossing of the South Atlantic Ocean and became the first woman to fly from England to South America, a testament to her navigating ability.
Perhaps Jean’s most pivotal moment was in October 1936, when she decided to take on the challenge to fly from England to New Zealand. Jean flew day and night, with little sleep, arriving in Darwin 24 hours faster than the previous record holder Jimmy Broadbent. She then flew to Sydney and waited for the weather to clear, before embarking on her journey across the Tasman.
Her 22,891km journey was an outstanding record-breaking success, landing at Māngere Aerodrome - now Auckland Airport - after 11 days and 45 minutes. She became the world record holder and would keep the record for 44 years.
In 1937 Jean Batten was the first woman to be awarded the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale Gold Air Medal, one of the FIA’s highest awards.
Australia to England and farewell
Jean was determined once again to prove herself when, with the arrival of regular air services between Australia and England, many commented that the days of pioneering were nearing to an end. She set out to complete the journey from Darwin on October 19, 1937, landing in Lympne, England on October 24.
The flight had been completed in just 5 days, 19 hours and 15 minutes. Batten now held the solo record for flights between England and Australia in both directions. Jean departed Lympne for Croydon Airport, London’s international airport and was welcomed by a crowd of 10,000 people.
This was to be Jean Battens final long-distance flight. The Daily Express front page the following day read in bold letters... “THE GIRL WHO HAS BEATEN ALL THE MEN”
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