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Jean Batten — Hine-o-te-Rangi — Daughter of the Skies

15 September 2010

Jean Batten must have been a wonderful person to be around and today is the anniversary of her birthday in 1909. She could play piano, she had wanderlust, she could fly and she could explore — and could she explore.

Detail of the bronze statue of Jean Batten, Rotorua International Airport — photo by Catherine Dowman

Close up of the memorial to Jean Batten in Rotorua, New Zealand — photo by Catherine Dowman

Leaving her native town in New Zealand, Rotorua, to travel to England so that she could learn to fly … as a teenager her goal as to set the record flying from England to Australia. Wisely, no one backed her first efforts at long distance flying due to her only just receiving her pilot’s license.

Jean then sold almost everything she had to pay for more lessons as well as flight time to upgrade her license, eventually partnering to purchase a de Havilland Gipsy Moth. She gained experience in logistics and navigation while setting several distance records and all in the open cockpit of her Moth … enduring cold, rain and hand pumping fuel while in flight. Once, while crossing the Atlantic her compass failed due to atmospheric conditions but she kept her course by keeping the turn and bank indicator level. Another time while over the deep ocean her engine cut out inexplicably and she glided to near the waves — loosening her boot laces and flight suit, and planning to cut a wing from the Moth to use for a raft — but her engine cut back in just as inexplicably and she completed the flight … going unflinchingly on to other, more challenging, flights.

May 1934 would see her and the Moth set a record for a woman flying from England to Australia in 14 days 22 hours. This success earned her endorsements and sponsorships she needed to set a record for flying from England to New Zealand. The Gipsy Moth simply did not have the range to cross the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand so she again used everything she had to purchase what was needed — on this occasion a Percival Gull.

Jean could hardly have made a better choice with the Gull’s electric fuel pump, metal propeller, enclosed cockpit and a range in excess of 2000 miles (3200km). Soon, in 1936, she set the record she had wanted since she was only 19 years or age … England to New Zealand in the then unheard of 11½ days.  Shortly, during 1937, she set another record in the reverse direction in 5 days 5 hours — giving Batten the distinction of holding the record on both directions.

"Jean", the Percival Gull flown by Jean Batten — photo by Catherine Dowman

But it was the record flight connecting England with New Zealand that was the zenith of her flight career. When she landed in Auckland, New Zealand it seemed as if her entire homeland was there  to celebrate her accomplishment. The native Maori tribe in her home town awarded her their highest honor, a chief’s feather cloak and christened her Hine-o-te-Rangi (Daughter of the Skies).

A portion of Jean Batten's flight log at Rotorua International Airport — photo by Catherine Dowman

Jean Batten had good looks and was known as the Greta Garbo of the Skies. She also possessed elán — aware of her social standing and the need to promote her efforts she traveled those long solo flights with one or two evening dresses stowed in the aircraft. Engaged many times to different suitors she never married and gradually passed from the public eye. After setting so many records and honored with several international aviation awards she retired from flying at the outset of WW II but on her 70th birthday she celebrated by dancing the can-can with her kicks as high as they were in her prime. Sadly — anticlimactically — in 1982, and alone in a hotel, she passed away from an untreated dog bite in Majorca Spain.

There are several remembrances of Jean, however, and here are a few of them:

  • Her autobiography, My Life (published in 1938, republished as My Life — New Zealand’s greatest pilot in 2009)
  • The Jean Batten International Terminal at Auckland International Airport is named for her. Jean, her Percival Gull, hangs in the terminal and a statue of her in flying gear stands outside the terminal on its western end (37º 00’ 16” S / 174º 46’ 57” E).
  • Rotorua remembers her native daughter both at the Rotorua International Airport with a gallery and sculpture, as well as a memorial on the northwestern corner of the Rotorua Information Centre at Arawa Street and Fenton Street.

Rotorua International Airport's gallery to Jean Batten — photo by Catherine Dowman

Memorials to Jean Batten next to the Rotorua Information Centre — photo by Catherine Dowman

My thanks to Catherine Dowman for contributing these copyrighted photos for publication in this post. She travels to New Zealand on occasion and writes the web log The Caffeinated Traveller.

Much of the material for this post came from two books:

  • Chapter 9 in the book entitled, Women of the Air, Judy Lomax, 1987, ISBN 0-396-08980-1, 216 pp.
  • My Life, Jean Batten, 1938 and can be viewed on the web by going to the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre, part of Victoria University of Wellington
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4 Comments leave one →
  1. 15 September 2010 14:10

    A wonderful post about a great adventurer, if only we could turn back time and do these things all over again.

  2. 2 October 2010 17:12

    Hey. Great blog you’ve got there. I’m from the place where they have the memorial of Jean Batten. Thanks for posting. I’ve got a blog: Rotorua’s aviation scene: http://nzropilot.wordpress.com/

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      2 October 2010 18:15

      Kai ora!

      You are from Rotorua, then 🙂 My wife just spent a few weeks there visiting family and she took the photos I used in the post at that time.

      I like your blog — you have a good eye on what is going on there. I’m adding it to my links list — one of these days I’ll have the web links on the actual blog page but haven’t bothered to figure out that one yet.

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  1. Jean Batten: aviatrix, explorer and glamour queen. « the Caffeinated Traveller

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