Daughter of the Skies
By, Captain Nancy Aldrich, aviation writer
On September 15, 1909, Jane Gardner Batten was born in Rotorua, New Zealand. She became, arguably, New Zealand’s greatest aviator. She was the only daughter of a dental surgeon, Frederick Harold Batten and his wife, Ellen Blackmore. She was named after her grandmother, Jane, but it wasn’t long before everyone called her Jean. In her youth she wanted to become a concert pianist. All that changed when she became fascinated by the flight from England to Australia by Ross and Keith Smith. That flight occurred in 1919. Then Charles Kingsford Smith flew from America to Australia, in 1928. Kingsford Smith gave Jean her first airplane ride in his Southern Cross airplane.
At age 18, she decided she would rather be a pilot than a concert pianist. Her father was against the idea, but she was able to persuade her mother to take her to England, in 1929, where she could learn to fly. There she joined the London Aero Club, took lessons, and flew her first solo flight in 1930, and earned her private and commercial licenses in 1932. She had borrowed 500 pounds Sterling from Fred Truman, a New Zealand pilot flying with the Royal Air Force, to help pay for the lessons. After getting her licenses, she turned to Victor Doree, who helped her buy her first airplane, a Gypsy Moth biplane.
Jean wanted to fly from England to Australia, a rather daunting challenge in a Gypsy Moth. She intended to beat Amy Johnson’s time. On her first attempt, in 1933, after she flew through two sandstorms, the engine failed and she crash landed near Karachi. The plane was not salvageable, so she returned to England. She tried to talk Doree into buying her another airplane, but when he refused, she turned to Castrol Oil Company. They bought her a second-hand Gypsy Moth for her second attempt.
This attempt, in 1934, was also a failure. She ran out of fuel on the outskirts of Rome. As she was descending, she ran into a group of radio towers and crashed, almost ripping her lip off. She and the airplane were repaired and she flew back to London. She borrowed lower wings from her fiance, Edward Walter, and made another attempt. (I could find no information on a wedding taking place) This time she was successful and gained instant world wide fame. She made the 10,500 mile trip in 14 days and 22 hours, and 30 minutes, which beat Amy’s time by over 4 days. Then, in 1935, she made the return flight from Australia to England in 17 days and 15 hours. She was the first woman to make the return flight.
This flight earned her the Harmon Trophy. She seemed to make a habit of winning the Harmon Trophy, as she was awarded it three times between 1935 and 1937! Because of her success and fame, she was also awarded a contract as a spokesperson by Castrol Oil Company. She spent six weeks on a aerial tour of New Zealand. She was quickly becoming a national treasure.
She bought a Percival Gull Six, and flew 5,000 miles from England to Brazil, also in 1935. That flight was 61 hours, and 15 minutes. It was the fastest crossing of the South Atlantic Ocean, 13 1/4 hours, and the first woman to make the England to South America flight. This flight earned her the Order of the Southern Cross. She was the first person other than Royalty to receive that honor.
In 1936, she flew her Gull, christened Jean, 14,224 miles from England to New Zealand. The flight lasted 14 days and 45 minutes, and set a record for any type airplane. Before starting the flight she said, “If I go down in the sea, no one must fly out to look for me . . I have no wish to imperil the lives of others . .” After that flight she was honored by the Maori in her home town of Rotorua. The Maori gave a her Chief’s Feather Cloak, and the title Hine-O-Te-Rangi, which means, Daughter of the Sky.
Also, in 1936, she was awarded Commander of the British Empire (CBE), was given the Cross of Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, and awarded the Royal Aero Club’s Britannia Trophy. In 1938, she was the first woman to be awarded the highest honor in aviation, the medal of the Federation Aeronatique Internationale. She had become New Zealand’s greatest aviator, and a world-wide heroine! And, because of her striking beauty, she was frequently referred to as the “Greta Garbo of the Skies.”
In 1937, she flew the Australia to England route in 5 days, 18 hours, and 15 minutes. She was the first person to hold both the England to Australia and Australia to England solo records at the same time!
World War II cut short Jean’s flying career. Her Percival Gull was commissioned to active service, but she was not. Her contribution to the war was limited to tours and lectures to raise money for guns and airplanes.
After the war, she became a recluse, living in different places around the world. She lived with her mother, until her mother’s death in 1965. In 1977, she was invited to the opening of the Aviation Pioneers Pavilion at Auckland’s Museum of Transport and Technology as the Guest of Honor. That was probably her last public appearance. She returned to Spain. In 1982, she was bitten by a dog. She refused treatment. The wound became infected, and she died alone in a hotel room on November 22, in Palma, Majorca.
These flights would be difficult, and require much advanced planning even with the advanced technology of today. She accomplished all this in small, singe engine airplanes, with no radio navigation, and no weather reporting. These are amazing feats of adventure, daring and determination. She is a woman to be admired throughout all time. It is no wonder she is still referred to as New Zealand’s Greatest Aviator!
By, Captain Nancy Aldrich, aviation writer