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Jean Batten: the Garbo of the skies — book review

24 October 2010

Jean Batten: the Garbo of the skies — book review

Jean Batten: the Garbo of the skies, Ian Mackersey, 1990, ISBN 0-7088-5332-3, 465 pp.

Saying that Ian Mackersey can write and investigate is like saying that Joe Montana can throw an American football or that Pele can kick a soccer ball (football as it is known outside of the USA) — words understate capability. I became aware of his books while reading about New Zealand’s Jean Batten, perhaps the world’s best aviator in her time.

Ian Mackersey specializes in biographies and he is an excellent investigator. In this book about Jean Batten he interviewed her friends and family as well as others. He unlocked the mystery of Jean’s disappearance for a few years late in her life, indeed she had passed away. It was Mackersey who found the apartment where she had last lived, and where she died, as well as where she was buried — something that the governments of Spain and New Zealand had failed to do.

The end of her life was anonymous and solitary, much like how she lived her life and especially after her retirement from aviation. She seemed to have lived for aviation — when her aviation career was the center of focus she was extroverted, elegant and professional. When her flying was not the item of the moment she retired from the public eye, preferring to live with her mother in semi-isolation or by herself once her mother passed away.

Jean Batten’s psychology is assessed quite well by Mackersey. How she trained, how she socialized and how she related to those in her family and those around her — all these aspects are addressed. Addressed, yes, but not in a dry fashion. Mackersey brings Jean to life for us so that we can view her as a real person with her flaws and greatness wrapped into one package. And her life is something to read about.

Born in a time when women were not expected to fly, much less set records, Jean set her sights as a teenager to be a famous aviator for long distance flights. Her flights were extremely long and record setting, as was her airmanship. She was an excellent planner, leaving only to chance what she could not control — every risk was calculated and she knew her equipment as well as her navigational skills. Flying solo to set her records, and in the days without radios or electronic navigation aids or fatigue reducing autopilots, Jean flew through horrible weather at times while setting records in her open cockpit de Havilland Gypsy Moth. She could estimate wind drift using the ocean’s waves and angle marks on her wings in order to check her navigation, for course and drift, and make course corrections as indicated — and she rarely missed her landfalls by much. This was an astounding feat, back in her day, and helped to make her one the best aviators (if not the best aviator) of the time — far better than ones remaining more remembered today.

Jean’s abilities and flight histories stand in contrast to many record setting pilots of the day as well as in the following decade.  As WW II began she effectively retired as a pilot. Yet, decades later, she made a comeback during an interval from 1969 to 1977 as a public personality but not as a pilot. She looked decades younger than her age thanks to regular exercise, healthy diet and a face lift here and there — admiral accomplishments. Still, the focus was on her historic feats with the exception of promoting the Concorde’s development.

Mackersey nicely delves into the personality of Jean both in the short and long views. It’s an important part of this book and the second most intriguing section for me. A person who can fly solo for hours on end with no contact has to be self-reliant and intelligent and special — Ian explains and interprets these aspects with objectivity and delicately. The most intriguing part of the book though is the description of the investigation he found himself performing— finding her apartment, interviewing a witness to her death and the location of her then anonymous grave site. We have Ian to thank for not having Jean lost to history due to his search and writing of this comprehensive biography.

That she died alone and on the opposite side of the planet from her home country she and her mother abandoned so many decades before her death is tragic — but is explained understandably and with insight by the author. Similarly, so he illustrates Jean’s life and accomplishments. If you are to read about Jean Batten one should read this book by Ian Mackersey as well as Jean Batten’s, My Life, her autobiography.

Additional references and what has occurred since the book’s publication:

  • My Life, Jean Batten, 1938 can be viewed on the web by going to the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre, part of Victoria University of Wellington.
  • A previous post on Jean Batten, Jean Batten — Hine-o-te-Rangi — Daughter of the Skies, which published on 15 September 2010. Paste the title in the search window and select ENTER to get to the post. Photos of various monuments and a statue of Jean can be seen there.
  • During 2009 the town of Palma, on the island of Majorca, renamed a portion of the street where Jean passed away to del Carrer de Jean Batten. Majorca is diverse and rich in its history which means that its road names use the Catalan term for street “carrer” but many maps use the Spanish term “calle” instead.
  • Ian Mackersey produced a documentary on Jean Batten which uses the same title as his book, Jean Batten: the Garbo of the skies which, so far, has not been produced on DVD.
  • Jean Batten’s Percival Gull which she flew to set her most famous record now hangs suspended in the international terminal of Auckland’s International Airport. This terminal is named for her, the Jean Batten Memorial International Terminal,  but there is literally no sign showing the terminal’s name  which seems odd. A marker on a taxiway signifies the spot where she landed to complete her most famous of flights.
  • There is a life sized bronze statue of Jean Batten outside of the international terminal of Auckland International Airport, at its western end — she is wearing a flying coat as if stepping off her Percival Gull and walking to a welcoming crowd. Oddly, the statue was not funded by the country but by the city where the airport is actually located, Mangere, and three cheers for them!
  • A review of the Batten legacy can be found in this article (published on 12 September 2009) from the New Zealand Herald — and learn what a kind citizen of Palma has done, her name is Rosalia Coll, to keep Jean Batten remembered. Three cheers for her, as well!
  • Ian Mackersey has his own website, which can be found here, I suggest checking it out to investigate his other titles — and more.
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