Jean Batten: ‘Building Castles in the Air’

Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes

Jean Batten ranks among my all time heroes of aviation. Stunningly beautiful, Energetic, Daring, with a vagabond desire to explore and go beyond. She was a celebrity during a period when the world was shrinking, and people were beginning to travel en mass; The Art Deco themed 1930’s.

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 her time, rumoured to always carry a white silk dress on her record-breaking flights for social engagements, she never missed an opportunity for self publicity. A record holder by her twenties, Batten’s flying achievements put her on par with more widely-recognised 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 nourished 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 Jean 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.

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. Refusing medical attention, she passed away without anyone knowing who she was, and 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, intertwined in an era of discovery and possibility.  

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

Taking the plunge…

It’s been some time since I last posted a blog entry. I’ve got a pretty reasonable excuse though as I have been very busy beavering away with the website overhaul. Not only that, but there have been a lot of changes going on recently, so you’ll now notice the website offers products for sale, which I hope you’ll get the chance to have a look at. 

I’ve decided to take the plunge and start up my own retail business. I’ve been pulling together small, generally aviation related producers who create really wonderful stuff, items that I really appreciate and want to shout about that I use myself, either in the air or around my home. 

As you can imagine, it takes quite a lot of work creating these relationships, negotiating terms and then creating branding, packaging and everything in-between! Though it’s a new venture for me, I’m really excited about watching it grow and gradually adding to the range over time. 

It’s funny how sometimes the smallest things get you excited, like the swing tags for example. I found a cracking print press in chipping Campden called Cherry Press, David there has this gorgeous, old Heidelberg machine and produces just the best swing tickets for my stuff. They look so good when combined with the best quality A2 leather jackets produced by Aero leathers in Scotland for the Arthur Williams Collection

I’ve also got lots of broadcast projects on the boil as well this year, including a first for me with the BBC next month.This is a great step up for me, I can’t disclose too many details at this point, but I can say that it’ll be a three day live event that is aviation themed. For anyone who enjoyed ‘Flying across Britain’ then I think you’ll really enjoy this.The first broadcast will at 8pm, July 22nd on BBC 4.

As many of you may know, I’ve begun commentating for the blades aerobatic display team which is so much fun! I’ve known the blades for many years now, to be joining the team and going to all the major air shows with them is just brilliant. 

Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer are also keeping me busy with the Paris air show next week. I’m looking forward to possibly seeing some of you there and sharing pictures from the show. No doubt there will be some pretty spectacular stuff in the show, including of course the E2 E190 with its latest livery which is bound to get a lot of attention. 

Expanding my duties as ambassador to the light aircraft association, I’ll be producing and presenting a series of 6 films for them of which I’ll share the links to in due course. Heads up for anyone who is considering joining the LAA, I think they’ll be very useful for you to watch. 

Looking ahead, I also have the European swimming championships in September and the 2020 Paralympic games once again with Channel4

With any spare time, I have also been busy with the small task of rebuilding EY’s wing! (which I’m really happy to report is very close now). I’m hopeful that she’ll be flying again before the end of the month. Make sure you follow my social media channels for updates.

Thanks for reading. Have a great weekend.