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Thursday, September 15, 2016

Google Doodle celebrates 107th birth anniversary of New Zealander Aviator

Today’s post is also inspired by Google doodle of the day – celebrating 107th birth anniversary of a New Zealander woman … as we read, we admire her ! she was known for her striking looks, her glamorous appearance at receptions  (she reportedly took a white silk dress always !)

Surprising for the simple reason that this woman later in her life became a recluse,  lived in several places around the world with her mother until her mother's death in 1965. In 1982 she was bitten by a dog on the island of Majorca. She refused treatment and reportedly died alone in a hotel on Majorca, from complications from the dog bite, and was buried in Jan 1983.  As she had been there for a week, perhaps none knew who she was, the World & her relatives came to know of her passing away, later in Sept 1987. 

On May 23, 1934, a flawlessly made-up woman dressed in an immaculate white flying suit and matching helmet stepped out of a tiny Gipsy Moth aeroplane and on to a dusty landing strip in Australia. She had just beaten the women’s record for a solo flight from England to Australia by almost five days. Her achievement captured the attention of the world’s media and congratulatory telegrams poured in from all quarters, including royalty and even one from British aviator Amy Johnson – the pilot whose record she had just broken.  She  was on the cusp of becoming one of the most famous women in the world. So how did this young and talented pilot go from being dubbed “the Greta Garbo of the skies” to being buried in a pauper’s grave?

It is the story of - Jean Gardner Batten CBE OSC (1909 - 1982),  a New Zealand aviator who made  the first-ever solo flight from England to New Zealand in 1936.

In 1913 the family moved to Auckland; she studied ballet and piano. Though she was a gifted pianist, at age 18 she determined to become a pilot after the Australian pilot Charles Kingsford Smith took her for a flight in his Southern Cross airplane. In 1929 she and her mother moved to England, to join the London Aeroplane Club. She took her first solo flight in 1930 and gained private and commercial licences by 1932, borrowing £500 from Fred Truman, a New Zealand pilot serving in the Royal Air Force who wanted to marry her, to fund the 100 hours flying time required. Batten made two unsuccessful attempts to beat Amy Johnson's time to Australia. In April 1933 she hit two sandstorms before the engine failed, and wrecked the aircraft. She crash-landed near Karachi. Returning to London she turned to the Castrol oil company, which bought her a second-hand Gipsy Moth for £240. She made another attempt in April 1934, but ran out of fuel at night on the outskirts of Rome. Crashing into a maze of radio masts, she nearly severed her lip. The plane was repaired and she flew it back to London, where she borrowed the lower wings from the aircraft of her fiancé, stockbroker Edward Walter, for a third attempt.


In May 1934, Batten successfully flew solo from England to Australia in the Gipsy Moth. Her trip of 14 days and 22 hours beat the existing England-to-Australia record of English aviator Amy Johnson by over four days. For this achievement and for subsequent record-breaking flights, she was awarded the Harmon Trophy three times (1935, 1936, 1937). She also received an endorsement contract with Castrol oil. Batten's book about her trip, Solo Flight, was published by Jackson and O'Sullivan Ltd in 1934. Batten took a boat to New Zealand with the Gipsy Moth (which could not have flown across the Tasman Sea) and made a six-week aerial tour there before returning to England.

In 1935 she set a world record flying from England to Brazil in the Percival Gull, for which she was presented the Order of the Southern Cross, the first person other than Royalty to be so honoured.  In 1936 she set another world record with a solo flight from England to New Zealand. Batten was created Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1936, and she was also given the Cross of Chevalier of the French Legion of Honour that year. In 1938 she was awarded the medal of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, aviation's highest honour; she was the first woman to receive the medal.

World War Two ended Batten's flying adventures. Her Gull was commissioned to active service but Batten was not permitted to fly it. During the war she was involved in campaigns giving lectures in England to raise money for guns and aeroplanes, but her flying days were over. After the war she retired from public life except for a few anniversary appearances.

Because of her striking looks, her glamorous appearance at receptions (she always took a white silk dress with her on her record-breaking flights, and repaired her lipstick before exiting her aircraft), and her later reclusive ways, Batten became known as the "Greta Garbo of the skies". In September 2009, a Qantas Boeing plane  was named after Batten. On the outside Jean had everything she had ever dreamed of but deep down she was plagued by a haunting loneliness which she often described in her log books. These feelings were only reinforced when Beverley died in a plane crash in February 1937. His death was one from which she would never recover. The book about her -  The Infinite Air, does not agree. She paints Batten as driven, but human and sometimes fallible, the product of a seriously dysfunctional family and living an often sad life punctuated by loss.

The woman who at her peak was considered a damsel’s  life ended with a 73-year-old Batten, unrecognised, dying alone of an untreated, infected dog bite in a modest serviced apartment in Palma, Majorca in 1982. She was buried in a pauper's grave and her death was undiscovered in New Zealand for five years.

In someways the heroine achiever’s life makes a sad reading !

With regards – S. Sampathkumar
15th Sept. 2016.

Sources : Wikipedia; NZedge; Express.co.uk; teara.govt.nz

1 comment:

  1. Such a fine woman. You can see her simplicity all through out these photos. I'm sure students from http://resumescentre.com/blog/the-stress-interview-what-is-it-and-how-can-you-survive will be inspired to be more like her.

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