Jean Gardner Batten
Born 15/9/1909 – Died 22/11/1982
Known as the Garbo of the Skies, Jean Batten was born in Rotorua, New Zealand in 1909, the daughter of a dental surgeon. Although a gifted pianist, at age 18, Jean was intent on a career in flying. Inspired by Australian aviator Charles Kingsford Smith, who took her up in his aeroplane Southern Cross.
In 1929, Jean moved to the UK, and joined the London Aeroplane Club. Borrowing money from two of her many male admirers, she was able to go solo in 1930 and gain her commercial and private licences by 1932, having also purchased her first aeroplane, a Gipsy Moth. It was after her first aeroplane was written off, that she turned to Castrol Oil to persuade them to fund her second Gipsy Moth.
Jean Batten had made several record attempts flying from Lympne. Her first attempt took off from Lympne on 9th April 1933, but this flight had to be abandoned in Karachi. Then on 8th May 1934 she flew to Darwin, Australia in a Gipsy Moth (G-AARB), beating Amy Johnson‘s record by five days. The next year it was Buenos Aires, Argentina, leaving Lympne on 11th November. More records started to come her way, for on 16th October 1936, she flew solo to her native New Zealand via Australia in Percival Vega Gull. It was a record for both England – Australia, and England – New Zealand.
On 24th October 1937, another record was broken as Jean flew into Lympne from Darwin, Australia in Percival Gull Six.
This was the last record flight Lympne was to witness, as the era of such feats of endeavour was coming to an end, and world war was soon to threaten. Not able to fly, once war was a reality, Jean lectured to raise money for the war effort. After the hostilities were over, she started to become more reclusive, and lived in many far flung places worldwide with her ever present Mother, who died in 1965. Suddenly in 1969, she made an astonishing comeback. She had a facelift, died her grey hair jet black and wearing a mini skirt looked like a forty year old, not the sixty year old she was. Radio, TV and various aeronautical events saw her in the thick of it with interviews and celebrity life being enjoyed again. This carried on for the next ten years. Then once again she ‘dropped off the radar’. This was to culminate in a mystery of her whereabouts in the 1980’s. Sometime in 1982, she had moved to Majorca, and soon after was bitten by a dog. Refusing treatment for the bite, she died in a seedy hotel room, and unknown to the world was buried anonymously in an unknown pauper‘s grave. For five years no one knew of her fate. Her biographer, Ian Mackersey left his Auckland home to track her down in 1987. He travelled the world with his wife following leads, interviewing relatives and friends, until finally his detective work led him to Majorca. The hotel staff had no idea of her past celebrity, and owing to a administrative bungle by the Spanish authorities, none of her relatives were informed of her death. Jean Batten died of a pulmonary abcess, when the infection spread to her lungs. She had been resident in Majorca for just five weeks, and was buried in January 1983.
Today, Auckland International Airport is named after her in New Zealand as a tribute to this remarkable aviator, together with her Percival Vega Gull on public view. Copyright-John Simpson
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