The first sandstorm hit over the Syrian desert, catching and wrenching the wings of the tiny pale-blue Gipsy Moth, tossing the biplane about as if it were a feather. In the open cockpit, the young woman braced herself and cringed as the sand blasted into her face, chafing and stinging her skin. Brass-frame goggles protected her eyes but since she’d hit the wall of swirling sand she’d been flying blind, her simple compass and even more basic altimeter her only guiance. She muscled the stick and the pedals to maintain control but the wind was too strong. Suddenly it rolled her upwards and the machine stalled. Then it plunged down in a dizzying spin.
With remarkable presence of mind, the woman recovered from the stall with only moments to spare. This was neither the time nor the place for aerobatics, she would have thought. Far too much was at stake—her whole life, her future, everything. During a brief lull in the wind, she rough-landed the Moth on the desert sand, just in time. Moments later, another wave of the storm hit with full force, and, with a coat over her head, the woman hung on for her life to the plane’s struts and wires.
When the storm had abated, she took off again, only to realise that the day—the third of her marathon flight—was already gone. It was too late and too dangerous to press on to the Baghdad aerodrome, she decided. With the engine switched off to minimise the risk of fire, she rough-landed again, in moonlight, her runway a camel-caravan trail in the sand. She pegged-out the Moth, anchoring the wings against the wind, covered the cockpit and plugged up the exhaust pipes. She pulled out a spanner from her toolbox and used it to bash open a can of pineapple. She ate the fruit with some chocolate biscuits, then, despite the frost, fell into an uneasy sleep next to the fuselage.
She woke up in broad daylight, surrounded by a group of desert Arabs. They seemed to be looking for the pilot. Allahu akbar, God is great, but surely He would not make a woman fly this thing. They were in for a shock. Having distracted them with biscuits and cigarettes, the young woman woke the engine into life with a hefty swing of the propeller, and within moments the Moth was airborne and heading for Baghdad. An hour later she was devouring bacon and eggs for breakfast in the RAF officers’ mess. Then she was in the air again, pushing on, heading east. Time was most precious.
The woman’s flight was beginning to capture the headlines, though so far largely because of its timing. It was April 1933. Only three years earlier a Yorkshire clerk Amy Johnson had flown solo from England to Darwin in 19 days, and when she’d returned home, one million people had turned out to welcome her at Croydon Airport. This was the era of the great solo flights, when a record could earn you a £10,000 reward and a knighthood. Little wonder that there were usually several stunt pilots attempting to break records at any one time.
As the young woman sped east, she was just a day behind Italian, Leonida Robbiano, who was also attempting to fly from England to Australia. But within hours of the woman’s departure from Baghdad Robbiano was dead, having plunged into the Bay of Bengal. At the same time Bill Lancaster, an RAF pilot attempting a flight from England to South Africa, was fatally lost over the Sahara, while the body of Australian aviation legend, Bert Hinkler, lay undiscovered in the Appenine mountains in Italy, where he’d crashed his Puss Moth three months earlier en route from Australia to England. Suddenly, the 23-year-old New Zealander named Jean Batten, pretty and immaculate in her white flying suit and perfect make-up, like an actress who had just stepped off the set of an aviation-adventure movie, was the only one still flying. A newcomer, she had outlasted the pros, unwavering in her mission to break the England-to-Australia record.
But it was not to be. Just short of Karachi, she was overtaken by another storm, a wall of sand engulfing her and carrying her along at terrifying speed, like “a scrap of paper in the wind”. She knew she had to force-land or she would die. She turned into the wind and plopped the Moth down in a manoeuvre known as a pancake landing. The ground, alas, was more sodden than it looked, and the aircraft sank into it heavily.
With the help of villagers who had gathered round at the sight of an aircraft falling from the sky, Jean managed to extract the Moth from the bog and move it onto dry ground, only to discover that the propeller had been fractured. In a despair-fuelled two-day-long spurt of activity, she brought, by horse, camel and truck, a spare propeller from Karachi, fitted it by torchlight and took off at first light the following day. Her spirits rose again, but not for long.
She was approaching the Karachi aerodrome when fate dealt her the final blow. “There suddenly came from the engine a noise that seemed to freeze my blood,” she later wrote, “a sharp report like a clap of thunder, followed by the sound of tearing, rending, splintering metal.” A con rod had snapped in half and shot through the crankcase. The engine in Jean’s old Moth was finished.
She crash-landed, short of the aerodrome, somersaulting the plane. Though she escaped unharmed, the aircraft was a complete write-off. Her dream, her life, her future, lay in a tangled heap. All she had she’d put into this flight, and now she was broke. It was enough to make anyone give up. But not Jean. To hardships and setbacks she was well accustomed and somewhat immune. The press were soon to nickname her the Try Again Girl.
Jean Battern was born on September 15, 1909, in Rotorua, to the sound of her father Frederick’s musical trio rehearsing in the room next door. As his wife’s labour began, Fred enquired if they should stop playing, but Ellen found the music soothing. And so the band played on.
Fred was a dentist, and Ellen, who had already given birth to three boys, filled the role of housewife. Although she filled it well, she found housework somewhat stifling. An art teacher and actress, with a domineering personality, she played piano and guitar, studied nutrition, ran roller-skating competitions, won flower shows and captained the local rowing club. She was a geyser of vitality and found the provincial world around her frustratingly small and restrictive. She longed for wider horizons and higher society. Jean would be her ticket there.
Despite her parents’ robustness—Ellen was a veritable iron lady, Fred a noted amateur boxer and rugby player—Jean was a frail child, overprotected by the family. Ellen, who had an old wives’ remedy for every occasion—hot potato for earache, mustard foot-baths for colds—instilled in her daughter such beliefs as “a clean healthy mind meant a clean healthy body” and “there were few ailments that could not be cured or avoided by adequate fresh air, fresh food and fresh water, coupled with exercise”. Indeed, following the latter maxim, with a ritual of daily swims and long walks, both women were to live in excellent health to an advanced age.
The first four years of Jean’s life seem to have been happy and joyful, but the idyll came to an abrupt end. The family moved to Auckland, and then came war. Fred volunteered to join the army and sailed for Europe, opening a family rift that would grow ever wider. With three children to bring up on her own, Ellen was soon in financial trouble. She moved her brood from one rented house to another, establishing a nomadic pattern that would characterise the rest of Jean’s life. But Ellen was a resourceful woman, and despite a shoestring existence the family survived, hardship strengthening in particular the bond between mother and daughter.
It was during the war years that Jean first saw an aeroplane, off Kohimarama beach. “The little seaplane would skim across the water throwing up a curtain of spray and rise like a seabird up into the blue sky,” she later wrote in her characteristically ornamented, ironed-out prose. “At such moments as I watched spellbound and the plane turned to fly back and circle the bay with the sunlight glistening on its silver wings, I experienced such a surge of exhilaration that I felt quite sick with longing to be up there in it.”
Shortly after Fred’s return, the family fell apart, though appearances were maintained. By now, Ellen’s domination of Jean’s life was almost complete. The mother would live her unfulfilled dreams through the daughter.
It was Ellen who took Jean to see the seaplanes, and who purportedly pinned a newspaper cutting about French pilot Louis Blériot and his Model X monoplane above baby Jean’s maintenance, categorically refused, when probed by Jean, to support it. “It’s far too dangerous,” he said, “and it’s very expensive.” Officially, therefore, the idea was that Jean would sell her piano and then, accompanied by Ellen, sail to London, where she would continue to study music. In reality, once in London in early 1930, the two conspirators headed not for the Royal College of Music but the Stag Lane aerodrome in a field at the end of Edgware Road, next to the factory where British aircraft designer and amateur entomologist Geoffrey de Havilland was perfecting his line of Moths. The music that Fred was unsuspectingly to pay for was not the sonatas of Beethoven or the polonaises of Chopin but the wind-in-the-wires song of the open-cockpit Gipsy Moth. It was a cunning plan. Like a best-selling book or a top-billing movie today, in the 1930s flying was a laissez-passer to the world of the rich and famous, a shortcut out of poverty and into the echelons of the glitterati. In May 1927, it took Charles Lindbergh 33 hours to fly from New York to Paris and into instant fame and wealth. A year later, Charles Kingsford-Smith, with a crew, flew across the Pacific, landing in a similar fortune. Flying was the in thing, the pastime of the wealthy, the dream of the masses. For Ellen and Jean the only hurdle was that, while they lived on £3 a week, one flying lesson cost £2. But again, as during the war years, they scraped through. On December 5, 1930, Jean Batten qualified as a private pilot.
Contrary to her own touched-up recollections, she was a slow learner and not a natural flier. Fellow students recalled how once she overshot her landing and flopped the Moth over after hitting a wire fence, and how devastated and depressed she was after the incident. But her perseverance made an impact. Her instructor, Major Herbert Travers, who also trained Amy Johnson, was later quoted as saying: “She’s got the dream of the century. She’ll open up the air routes.”
Jean was now totally obsessed with flying. The secret was out, too, so that when she and Ellen visited New Zealand in 1931, Fred, ever concerned for the safety of his now unstoppable daughter, financed her through a navigation course at the Auckland Aero Club. Back in London, she went on to study for her professional pilot’s licence, which she thought would increase her chances of attracting sponsors for the long-distance flights she was already planning. Apart from working with the Stag Lane mechanics on aircraft and engine maintenance, and further developing her navigation and cross-country skills, she needed to accrue a total of 100 hours of flying time, which for someone with no real income would have been a gruelling financial ordeal. But Jean had one trump card up her sleeve, and this she now played.
By all accounts she was a knockout young woman, but so unresponsive to all overtures the men at Stag Lane thought she was a lesbian. She was not. As soon became clear, her single‑minded drive for aviation success left no room for romance, unless the latter served to further the former. Soon, she was to break not only flight records but the hearts of pilots as well, as she embarked on a series of calculated romantic engagements.
First, there was New Zealander Fred Truman, at the time an RAF pilot in India, so head-over-heels in love with Jean he gave her £500—his entire life-savings—to finance her flying. They studied together (he for his civilian licence), and he imparted to her many of his RAF tricks of the trade. She got her professional licence in December 1932.
Then it was Victor Dorée, son of a wealthy linen merchant, who, when Jean could no longer afford her aero-club subscription, generously paid it for her, then promptly gave her his own Gipsy Moth to use in training, fuel and all. It was also Dorée’s money—borrowed from his mother—that bought the Gipsy Moth DH60 M (registration G-AALG), which Jean used for her first attempt to fly to Australia. Dorée sponsored the flight, and the two were to share the proceeds of her anticipated success: publicity, royalties, grants and endorsements. However, as Jean wrote off the Moth near Karachi, there were no proceeds, only debt, and the deal turned sour—as did, as Jean saw it, the relationship.
For a while Jean was down and out, broke and in debt. In a tiny Stag Lane room, she lived with Ellen through a miserable London winter, when, as she wrote, “there had been times when we had to call a cup of tea a dinner and . . . unable to buy coal, would go for a sharp walk and retire to bed early to keep warm”. These were tough and seemingly hopeless days, but she never gave up her dream of a record flight to Australia. “Once my mind was set on something,” she wrote, “it was quite useless to attempt to swerve me from my purpose.” It took her a year to get back on her feet, to gather herself for another attempt.
Through her friendship with de Havilland, she secured partial sponsorship from Lord Wakefield, the owner of Castrol Oil, who could see her potential as a rising star and the advertising opportunities she could deliver. Thus she was able to buy a fifth-hand Moth for £260 (a new one cost £700) and set about organising her second attempt. By this time, another knight-saviour had appeared, a London stockbroker called Edward Walter. Within weeks, the pair were engaged.
Jean had the Moth fitted with long-range fuel tanks and a secret built-in trap-door toilet,designed by de Havilland himself. Her route was plotted meticulously: 25 legs across 13 countries; 17,280 km to Darwin, another 3200 km to Sydney; the precise hours of daylight each day; a schedule of routine engine checks; fuel usage; distances between refuelling stops; each airstrip’s surface type. It was a masterpiece of planning. Only one thing she didn’t allow for: human error. The error of her own judgement.
The try again girl took off on April 21, 1934, without press fanfare. When she landed at Marseilles to refuel, it was raining heavily and the airport authorities warned her that the worst of the weather was still to come. She ignored them—she was a girl on a mission—but the French officials were adamant and refused to help her start her engine. (The Moth didn’t have a starter: it was customary for an assistant to swing the propeller on the pilot’s command “Contact”.) Then they formally forbade her to take off unless she signed an indemnity stating that she would accept full responsibility for the consequences. She signed it. Then she climbed back into the cockpit and took off into a storm of biblical proportions.
To appreciate fully the significance of her decision, it’s necessary to know something about flying a Moth. “It’s more akin to sailing,” as Nancy Bird-Walton, the first lady of Australian aviation and a contemporary and acquaintance of Jean’s, described it. “The aircraft can cruise at 130 km/h. With a strong tailwind, you can fly at a 160 km/h, but if the same wind is against you, your ground speed can drop to 125 km/h. You can just about run faster than that.” Modern-day enthusiasts joke that, watched from the ground while flying into a strong headwind, a Moth gives the impression of slowly moving backwards.
The Moth—both the Gipsy and, later, the Tiger—was the most popular trainer aircraft of its era because it was difficult to fly and seemed to magnify any piloting errors. “The Moth is extremely rudimentary, it’s a stick and rudder active kind of flying all the way,” Bird-Walton said. “You can’t take your hands off the stick or the aircraft will spin, roll or dive. It keeps you sharp and honest. The idea behind using it as a trainer was that if you could fly a Moth, you could fly just about anything else.”
Nowadays, most flying takes place at altitudes from which the world is little more than a map, but in the days of the Moth, aviation was a low-altitude adventure, a 3-D out-there experience with all the sounds, smells, sights and uncertainties that that entails. There was never a dull moment with these aircraft, Bird-Walton added, which is why, for those inevitable occasions when things would get out of control, her instructor, Kingsford-Smith, taught her some specific practical skills. “In emergency landings, we were to always head for the trees, and aim the plane between the trunks,” she said. “The impact of breaking the wings off would make you slow down.”
When Jean took off into the storm, at 3 p.m., her fuel tanks weren’t full. She’d taken on gasoline for a seven-hour flight only—enough to get her to Rome, five-and-a-half hours away in good conditions—calculating that the fully-laden Moth might be too heavy to lift off from the water-logged Marseilles airstrip. Soon after take-off she realised she was in trouble: thick clouds rolled in and lowered, and she lost visual contact with the ground. Then she was flying over the Mediterranean, with no visibility and into a stiff headwind that slowed her groundspeed to about 65 km/h.
She lost more time navigating her way round Corsica, by which time it was getting late in the day. It grew dark, but, not finding anywhere to land on the mountainous island (which in 1941 was to claim the life of pilot and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry), she pressed on.
She was now over the sea again, flying through heavy rain, with no visibility and still into the headwind, aiming for the distant coast she knew she no longer had enough fuel to reach. Her biographer would call this flight suicidal. Before long, with the coast of Italy still out of sight, she was flying on empty tanks and a prayer. Then she was undoing her shoelaces and helmet strap, readying herself for a crash-landing in the sea, pondering her own folly. “I had made my bed and now must lie in it,” she later commented. “A watery grave was what I deserved.”
Miraculously, the lights of Rome appeared out of the gloom. Against all odds, Jean’s navigation had been impeccable. It was almost midnight nine hours into the flight—when the Moth’s engine, which had been spluttering for some time, gave a final cough and died. Coasting now, Jean dodged first one high mast, then another. She was over a communications facility of the Italian navy. On the ground there were trees and buildings and high-tension wires, but among all these she crashed with such skill and precision it was as though she’d landed a helicopter.
Jean walked away with only bruises and shock, but the Moth was a mess. No problem; the Italians eyed the wreckage, then, in a gesture of admiration for her verve and courage, proceeded to reassemble it. All Jean had to do was pay for the parts, and by another stroke of good fortune, in a dusty corner of a hangar, she found what she needed most: a pair of lower wings (hers had crumpled on impact with the ground). Ten days after the crash she flew back to London in her reconditioned Moth. Take 3 of her attempt was about to begin.
At 5.30 a.m. on May 8,1934, Jean took off again from Brooklands aerodrome, back on the same schedule as before. The weather was fair and by evening she’d reached Rome. The days that followed were a blur of places: Athens, Cyprus, Damascus, Baghdad, Karachi, Calcutta—all smooth sailing until she reached Rangoon, 10 days into the flight. Her earlier interlude in Rome, and the resultant delay, were now to prove critical.
Being two weeks late, she was just in time for a rendezvous she so wished to avoid—a head-on encounter with the monsoon. As she subsequently wrote: “I felt uneasy, and looking out of the cockpit saw ahead of the machine a great black mass. It looked like a range of mountains—too wide to go around, too high to fly over and rolling northwards towards me like a great smokescreen obscuring everything in its path . . . I was strongly tempted to turn back but the thought of failing a third time was too much.”
She flew straight into the storm. It was like stepping under a waterfall. “I had . . . flown from day into night. Very soon I was drenched to the skin and the cockpit floor was completely flooded.” For 45 minutes she flew using only her instruments, illuminating them with her small torch. She cleared the storm cell, then flew through several more in similar fashion.
By day 12 she was in Singapore and the worst of the weather behind her. By now the London newspapers were swarming in on Ellen. Only the Timor Sea separated the Try Again Girl from her goal: 800 km over open water, in a temperamental, single-engine plane, with no life jacket or radio.
Then she was there, descending into the red heat haze of Australia, spiralling downwards to land at Darwin, just past midday on May 23. Her time for the epic flight was 14 days, 22 hours and 30 minutes, bettering by four days the record of Amy Johnson. Without delay she sent a telegram to Ellen: “Darling, we’ve done it. The aeroplane, you, me.” The newspaper headlines said simply: JEANIUS.
Jean Batten was on top of the world.
Instantly, it was adieu cold bedsitters and bonjour Ritz, as gifts, endorsements, grants and invitations began to pour in. The wave of adulation must have surprised even Jean herself. She flew on to Sydney for what turned out to be a four-week-long maelstrom of festivities; then, shipping the Moth with her, went on to New Zealand for another riotous welcome and a sell-out lecture tour of the country, during which she gave 150 speeches. She was compared to Joan of Arc and Florence Nightingale; she was Britannia herself, Heroine of the Empire. Jean was gutsy and beautiful, and she arrived on the public scene at precisely the right time, as the world was pulling its way out of the pit of the Depression. After years of hardship, the masses needed an escape, a dream, and she lived that dream for them. Thus her arrival was as popular as a royal visit.
Jean, for her part, did not take long to adjust to this regal treatment. Then, like a true star, she began to demand it. Suddenly hooked on fame, intoxicated by glamour, she fell into an almost drug-like dependency on the limelight. Those close to her during the publicity tour reported that she was often arrogant, bossy, brusque and uncompromising, a prima donna who forever demanded attention and “never pulled back her punches”.
On the ground as in the air, she showed no give, whether facing circumstances, obstacles or people. The three men who loved her and who had helped her into the air, she barely mentioned. Ellen was her only friend, her PA, her chaperone, the only person she needed. The two formed a tight and emotionally self-sufficient unit and cloaked their private life with impenetrable, almost obsessive secrecy. But when, after the New Zealand tour, they returned to Australia, Jean suddenly, and for the first time in her life, fell—truly, madly, deeply—in love.
His name was Beverley Shepherd, the 23 year-old son of a wealthy Sydney doctor, a handsome and likeable socialite training to be a commercial pilot. In an eye-blink, he melted the ice around Jean’s heart, and from then on they were constantly together. They sailed the family yacht on Darling Harbour, picnicked in the Blue Mountains, went flying in their Moths (Beverley had a Puss Moth.) There was no doubt they would marry, but—first things first—Jean had a few more ambitions to fulfil before walking up the aisle. Fame, she quickly realised, was like a fireworks display: it lit up the sky with dazzling brightness but needed repeated ignition. On April 8, 1935, she lit the taper for another salvo. She took off from Sydney, and, with Beverley escorting her all the way to Bourke, began the return flight to England.
She nearly lost her life over the Timor Sea when, halfway between Darwin and Kupang, the Moth’s engine conked out and, no matter what she did, refused to restart. She was at 6000 ft when she began the agonising glide down towards the sea. “I experienced a feeling of complete detachment,” she wrote later, “as if I were an onlooker, not the central figure in the drama.” Again, as during her Rome misadventure, a prayer was her final recourse.
“The last few minutes were a torture,” she continued. “In a final desperate effort, just before attempting to land, I opened and closed the throttle lever once more—but nothing immediately happened. [Then] . . . a sudden roar broke the silence like a clap of thunder . . . Like a great sob the engine burst into life again.” For a while she skimmed the surface of the sea; then she began to climb.
With the engine continuing to stutter, she made it safely to Timor. Putting the trouble down to dust in the fuel system, she cleaned the filters and carburettor. Then she pressed on, but all the way to England the engine continued to misfire, several times cutting out com‑pletely. Seventeen days and sixteen hours after leaving Australia, Jean and the Moth made it to Croydon—but only just. Her return flight was acknowledged but the reception was modest. Jean knew that if she were to break any more records, she would need a new plane. Now, however, she was a woman of means and fame, the darling of the press and the aristocracy. She fronted RAF recruiting films and the BBC’s Empire Service broadcasts. On her 26th birthday, she took delivery of her dream machine: a Percival Gull Six cabin monoplane, with a six-cylinder 200 hp engine.
The Gull was sleek, fast and, at £2000, very expensive, but it had twice the speed and range of a Moth and more than twice the comfort. It could fly at 14,000 ft, thus avoiding much of the low-altitude weather so perilous to a biplane. If the Moth was a Clydesdale, the Gull was a racehorse, and Jean was about to test its limits of endurance. Starting on November 11, 1935, and finishing on the 13th, she blitzed from England to Brazil in 2 days, 13 hours and 15 minutes, crossing the South Atlantic and setting an absolute world record—that is, for a pilot of either sex and in any type of aircraft—and becoming the first woman to fly from England to South America.
Her time of 13 hours and 15 minutes for the trans-Atlantic leg of the flight, across 3040 km of open ocean from Thies in Senegal to Natal in Brazil, was also an absolute record, while the path she took was a display of her supernatural navigation skills. With only a tiny fuel margin and flying by dead reckoning, without seeing a single landmark, she made landfall with the precision of a modern 747 with all its computer-navigation systems, even though she had to pass through a magnetic aberration near the Equator that set the needle of her primitive compass spinning. To crown it all, she was the girl who had beaten all the boys, even some French ones in a four-engine mail plane.
For a while Jean luxuriated in the hospitality and adoration of the Latino nobility, touring Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay; then she was back in Europe for more of the same, collecting trophies and medals and honorary memberships. But she was soon restless again. With the Gull’s 3200 km range it was possible for Jean to contemplate her ultimate dream: to fly from England to New Zealand, with the final leg across the Tasman Sea. On October 5, 1936, with a full media farewell, she took off from England for what was to become her signature flight.
She flew like a demon possessed, pushing on day and night. Over a period of five days she slept just seven hours. Although exhausting, the flight was uneventful,with the notable exception of an incident over Burma. While battling through a tropical deluge and keeping low to maintain visual contact with the ground, she nearly flew straight into a mountainside. At the last moment she executed a stall turn—an acrobatic manoeuvre that entailed pulling the Gull into a vertical climb until it completely ran out of speed, then turning it nose-down, diving, and levelling out along her previous flight path and flying away from the obstacle.
It took her 5 days and 21 hours to reach Darwin, 24 hours less than the fastest man. Another two days and she was in Sydney, where the media proclaimed her Empress of the Air. The Aussies, it appeared, wanted it all to end there. First, the civil aviation authorities tried to stop Jean’s trans-Tasman attempt, claiming the weight of the fuel she needed for the crossing would cause the Gull to exceed its certificate of airworthiness. But Jean produced a special overload permit she had acquired and by-passed the red tape. Prominent members of the community appealed to her not to continue, and then, much more bluntly, an Australian media magnate, Frank Packer, offered her £5000 to go no further. In 1936, such a sum was she-lived-happily-ever-after kind of money. But Jean declined. At 4.30 a.m., on October 16, she took off along the flare path of the air-force base at Richmond, climbed over Sydney and headed out to sea. The world held its breath and waited.
Plagued by rainstorms and beset by growing doubts, Jean began to fear she’d missed New Zealand altogether and was heading out into the Pacific. But her navigation again proved to be like that of a homing pigeon. Nine-and-a-half hours and 1200 miles (1920 km) into the journey she sighted land and found she was less than 100 metres off course. She passed New Plymouth and flew on to south Auckland’s Mangere aerodrome, where the welcoming crowds swarmed and traffic was backed up all the way to the city centre. Today, you’d need to fly to Mars or beyond to get such a reception.
This was the crowning moment for Jean Batten, the zenith in the trajectory of her life. She was 27, and, as she herself admitted, she had it all: health, beauty, wealth and fame—and a lover awaiting her in Australia. A trifle pompously perhaps—but this was Jean through and through—she was soon to plunge into writing an autobiography, called My Life. The notion of finality in the title proved sadly prophetic.
First, she suffered a heart-splitting blow. Just as she arrived back in Sydney, she received news that the Stinson airliner on which Beverley Shepherd had been coming to meet her had been reported missing. Search-and-rescue efforts were called off after five days, but in her Gull Jean combed the New South Wales outback for another four. Then the burnt-out wreckage of the Stinson was found by a bushman. Miraculously, there were two survivors, but Beverley wasn’t one of them.
Stricken with grief, Jean fell into an emotional black hole, before reaching for the only remedy she knew: another flight, another record. On October 19, 1937, back in her Gull, she rocketed off towards England. Flying almost non-stop, she took only 5 days, 18 hours and 15 minutes to get there. When she arrived at Croydon on the 24th, her legs were so cramped she couldn’t walk and had to be carried. Yet again, she was the woman who’d beaten all the men, but it was to be the last time. Airlines were already flying the transcontinental routes. It was becoming ever harder to make a news-breaking flight, to stay in the headlines. The era of pioneering aviators was over.
Then, as in her childhood, came war. Jean offered her piloting skills and Gull to the RAF, but apparently failed a medical because of short-sightedness. The Gull was requisitioned and Jean was wingless. Having clocked up some 2600 air hours, she was never to fly again. For a while she worked in an armaments factory, then for Britain’s wartime propaganda machine. Briefly, she was a star again—lecturing, fund-raising, inspiring—then her flame went out and she couldn’t rekindle it.
In the decades that followed, she would occasionally resurface in aviation circles—lobbying for Concorde, visiting New Zealand and Australia on aviation junkets—but life had lost its meaning for her. There were no more goals, no challenges, no way in which to stand in the limelight again. She seemed to live only for her past, a past that, in the post-war years, no one remembered. The once supreme navigator had now lost her bearings.
Yet she still had Ellen, and the bond between mother and daughter was now stronger than ever. They lazed together in the world’s warmer climes, living in Jamaica for six years, gipsying round Europe, settling on southern Spain’s Costa del Sol, then moving to the Canary Islands. It was there, on the island of Tenerife, that Ellen died, just short of her 90th birthday.
For Jean it was as if the larger part of herself had died. She stayed on Tenerife for another 16 years, perhaps the most empty and numb period of her life. Then, in search of a quieter place—for the island was becoming a tourist hot spot—she decided to move to the Spanish Mediterranean island of Majorca. There, in 1982, she vanished.
It is only through the detective work ofJean Batten’s biographer, Ian Mackersey, that we know what happened. Mackersey’s investigations revealed that Jean had gone to Majorca to buy an apartment in which to live out her final years. She was staying in a small hotel, and during one of her customary walks was bitten by a dog. The wound became infected, and the infection spread into her lungs, causing a pulmonary abscess. For reasons known only to Jean herself, she didn’t seek medical help.
The hotel maid found her dead in her room on November 22, 1982, and, as no one knew who she was, her body lay in the local morgue, unclaimed by either relatives or friends, for two months, before being buried in a communal grave. Thus, unwittingly, Jean set another
precedent: her fall from the heights of glory to the deepest obscurity must surely rank as something of a world record. Her reprinted memoir is entitled Alone in the Sky, but it’s clear that, especially once her mother had gone, she cut as solitary a figure on the earth as ever she did in the air.
For a nation that favours understatement over bombast—“We knocked the bastard off” over “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”—Jean Batten is an uncomfortable heroine to accept, much less to admire. We like our folk heroes to pull off the world’s firsts and come home never to brag about them, to build schools and remove eye cataracts in countries less privileged than our own.
Jean Batten was a contradiction of all that, a ruthless femme fatale who would walk over everything and everyone to achieve her goals. But she travelled a hard road and she paid her dues. For all the glitz and glory, she failed to find true happiness, and her life was tragic and ultimately unfulfilled. She was the Flower of the Sky that no sooner had it bloomed, withered. Sometimes a pioneer can show us not only which road to take, but also which to avoid.
Spare her a thought next time you’re passing through Auckland’s Jean Batten International Airport, where, from the ceiling of the duty-free shopping centre, her Gull hangs like a squat arrow, pointing at the waiting 747s. Let your mind wander back to the time when flying was an adventure, not jet-lag-inducing bus travel. And, who knows, you may, like her, feel the pang that makes you “sick with longing to be up there in it”.