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Jean Batten: Building ‘Castles in the Air’

Known as the ‘Garbo of the Skies’ after Greta Garbo, the famous screen actress of the day, Jean Batten was the most glamorous aviatrix of the 1930s, rumored to always carry a white silk dress with on her record-breaking flights so she could be properly dressed for social occasions. A record holder by her twenties, Batten’s flying achievements put her on par with more widely-recognized female fliers like Amelia Earhart and Amy Johnson.

Born in New Zealand on 15 September 1909, Batten had a great love of nature, a love that was furthered when she was taken for a flight by the famous aviator Charles Kingsford Smith. Batten’s set her sights on becoming an aviator, determined to create a name for herself in a world that was rapidly discovering the possibilities aviation offered.

In 1929, Batten and her mother, Ellen, travelled to England so Batten could learn to fly. The trip was funded by Batten’s father, who had agreed to pay for the transit believing that he was sending Batten off to better her promising musical education. He was fooled.

She joined the Stag Lane Aero Club, a popular social venue for the rich and famous who wanted to be associated with flying and the excitement this new world offered. By 1932, Batten had earned her ‘B’ license and, with only 20 hours in her log book, she declared she would be flying to Australia to beat Amy Johnson’s record set in 1930.

Having persuaded fellow New Zealand pilot Fred Truman to buy her her first airplane, Batten made arrangements for her flight to Australia. Battered by sandstorms over the Syrian desert, Baghdad, and Baluchistan, Batten was flying over Karachi when her engine blew up. She attempted to land the fragile little De Havilland 60 Moth but it flipped over onto its back and was written off. Batten crawled from the wreckage without a scratch, lucky to be alive. ‘All my castles in the air had fallen about me,’ she said. She returned to England determined to make a second attempt.

After procuring another airplane, she was ready to set course for Australia for a second time in April 1934. Against French air traffic advice, Batten was flying south across the Mediterranean battling high headwinds when she ran out of fuel and crash landed near Rome, nearly severing her lip. However, it could have been much worse: Batten narrowly avoided radio masts and cables which would have torn her to ribbons. The Moth was badly damaged but not written off, and, after replacing the lower wings, Batten flew it back to England. After a full overhaul of her machine, she set off yet again.

The third attempt saw Batten fly through a Burma monsoon, also known as ‘the wall of death,’ described as flying through a dense, black wall of water. Batten pressed on and succeeded. She broke the England-to-Australia record set by Amy Johnson in 1930 by 4 days, putting the new record at 14 days, 22 hours and 30 minutes, traveling over 10,500 miles.

In 1934, Batten fell in love with trainee airline captain Beverly Shepard. A much-loved and well-respected man, Shepard had a profound impact on Batten’s life. But their new relationship would be pushed to the side while Batten had records to chase and a burning desire to create a name for herself.

Having claimed her first record, it wasn’t long before Batten was noticed by potential sponsors, one of whom was Lord Wakefield, a Castrol Oil giant. He saw the potential in a young, glamorous woman flying in an airplane sponsored by Castrol, and agreed to buy Batten a brand new airplane, the Percival Gull monoplane. In November 1935, Batten flew the Gull across the South Atlantic, becoming the first woman to fly it solo and setting a new record for the fastest crossing in the process.

Percival Gull

Her record breaking flight of 1936 was the most significant of her flying career. She was the first person of any gender to fly from England to New Zealand – the ‘first to fly across the entire empire’ – a distance of 14,224 miles. In doing so, Batten beat Jim Mollison’s time from England to Australia as well as several other smaller records along the way. Many of these flights crossed vast stretches of water, like the Tasman Sea, navigated with nothing more than a compass, chart, stop watch, and only one primitive engine. Batten’s flying life was lived on a razor’s edge, and only chance would dictate whether she made it across or perished trying.

After Batten’s triumphal arrival in New Zealand, she learned that an airliner had crashed somewhere between Brisbane and Sydney, killing Batten’s fiancé, Beverley Shepard, who had been the co-pilot. Batten’s hopes of settling down and enjoying a family life in Australia had been dashed. Brokenhearted, Batten threw herself back into the cockpit and flew back to England, becoming the first woman to complete the return journey. The loss of Shepard had a profound impact on Batten, and she never fully recovered from his death.

With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Batten vanished from the media spotlight almost as quickly as she’d entered it, her long distance flying at an end.

Batten attempted to join the ATA, but failed on medical grounds due to an eye injury sustained during her second attempt on Australia. Despite this, she was determined to contribute to the war effort and gave speeches to raise money for war bonds, drove ambulances, and even worked in a munitions factory.

During the war, Batten fell in love with an RAF bomber pilot called Richard. They became engaged but Richard was killed on operations over Germany shortly after. Batten once again found herself without anyone other than her mother, with whom she had a difficult relationship.

After the War the pair lived peripatetic lives, traveling all over the world, including Jamaica and Europe, before finally settling on the Mediterranean. It is rumoured that while living in Jamaica, Batten became close friends with both Noel Coward and Ian Fleming. Some believe that Batten was the inspiration for the character Solitaire in Fleming’s James Bond classic, Live and Let Die.

Batten’s mother died in Tenerife in 1965 and Batten retreated further into her shell, isolating herself from the outside world and shutting out friends and even family members.

In 1986, a journalist went in search of Batten only to discover that she had died four years previously on 22 November 1982 in Palma, aged 73.

She had been bitten by a dog and the wound became septic. Batten refused medical attention and antibiotics and passed away without anyone knowing who she was. Batten lay anonymously in a shared pauper’s until 1986.

Batten’s story is a story of the endless optimism of youth, of bravery, romance, and a wonderful spirit of adventure which intersected with an era of discovery and possibility. But it’s also a story balanced with tragedy. Like so many other early aviators, to achieve her dreams Batten had to make huge personal sacrifices and take enormous risks.

I’ll always have soft spot for the ‘Garbo of the Skies.

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