The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, rightly, describes Jean Gardner Batten, born in Rotorua in 1909, as one of the great international aviators of the 1930s. Her mother, Ellen, pinned a newspaper picture of the great French pilot Louis Bleriot, who had just flown the English Channel, on the wall beside Jean’s cot. Ellen would prove a firm supporter of her daughter’s ambitions as she grew. At first it seemed that Jean would seek a career in the arts – she studied both piano and ballet hoping to perform professionally in both – however in 1927 she became inspired by Charles Lindburgh ‘s solo crossing of the Atlantic and resolved to become a pilot. Two years later Jean was taken by her mother from New Zealand to Sydney where she had arranged for Jean fly with Charles Kingsford Smith in his legendary plane The Southern Cross. This experience fired the young girl’s determination to fly even more.
The piano was sold to pay the fares for her and her mother to fly to England in 1930 where Jean learnt to fly at the London Aeroplane Club and immediately decided to plan a solo flight from England to Australia, in an attempt to break Amy Johnson’s 19 ½ day women’s record for the flight.
Jean Gardner Batten was a beautiful woman and managed to persuade a succession of smitten young men to fund her flying ambitions, although she usually walked out of their lives when they were of no further use to her. This ruthless streak probably helped her survive serious crashes on her first two attempts on Johnson’s record. However in May 1934 she set out from England in a plane that had been patched up with borrowed wings following her crash on the outskirts of Rome less than a month earlier. She landed in Darwin 14 days and 22 ½ hours later.
Jean Batten has claim to be the finest female pilot of the 1930s, blessed with an almost fearless courage and deep wells of skill. She was awarded the CBE, was the first woman to fly from England to Australia and back, in 1935 she flew from England to West Africa to Brazil navigating with only a watch and compass [creating a universal record]. In 1936 she made the longest of all her great journeys – the first ever direct flight from England to New Zealand. It took her 11 days 45 minutes. In October 1937 she flew from Australia to England in 5 days 18 hours, a solo record for pilots of either sex, and became the first person to hold simultaneously England-Australia solo records in both directions.
Her personal life, marked by a close relationship with her mother, was both turbulent and tragic and Jean Gardner Batten was by turns both reclusive and reckless. She was engaged three times, breaking off the first after falling in love with airline pilot Beverley Shepherd who died in an air crash. During the war she planned to marry an RAF pilot, identified only as Richard, who was killed in a mission over Europe. Jean Batten died in Spain in 1982, following a dog bite which she refused to have treated, and a mix of bureaucratic incompetence and her own reclusive nature meant that her death was not known in the wider world until 1987. She had been buried in a mass paupers’ grave in Palma in early 1983.