An Air New Zealand B777 flight from London to Auckland, piloted by an all-female flight crew, has provided a fitting tribute to the record-breaking solo flight on the same route 80 years ago by Jean Batten, New Zealand’s greatest aviator, who soared to fame and died in obscurity.
Eighty years ago yesterday, on 16 October 1936, Batten became the first woman pilot to fly from Britain to New Zealand.
After that formidable solo feat, Batten travelled to Australia and then completed her last long distance flight, from Australia to England.
Years later, she ended up in Spain, travelling with her mother. She drifted in and out of public view and after her mother’s death ended up living in obscurity in Majorca. According to the New Zealand Government’s history website, Batton died there on 22 November 1982 at the age of 73, having been bitten by a dog. For some reason she had refused medical treatment for the bite and complications set in.
“On 22 January 1983 she was buried in a paupers’ mass grave,” the history site records.
Jane Gardner Batten was born on 15 September 1909 in Rotorua and soon became known as Jean. In 1929, she visited Sydney and flew with Australian aviator Charles Kingsford Smith.
In April 1935, after becoming the first female pilot to fly from England to Australia and back, Batten fell in love with Australian airline pilot, Beverley Shepherd. Beverley was a male name in those days. It has since transitioned.
It seemed like the perfect match, but Shepherd died in a plane crash on 19 February 1937, the same day Batten was due to be reunited with him in Sydney.
The grieving Batten then headed overseas with her mother. In Jamaica, they became friends with the English playwright, actor, singer and wit Noël Coward. They then headed for Spain, where Jean Batten faded from public view. To learn more about her, see: http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4b13/batten-jean-gardner
Written by Peter Needham