Eighty years ago, New Zealand aviatrix Jean Batten took off from England and set a course for New Zealand. Andrew Stone traces her record-breaking flight.

Four days into her relentless flight towards history, Batten plunged into a typhoon.

Driving rain penetrated the cabin of her Percival Gull monoplane, soaking her flying suit and forcing her to lose altitude as she tracked the Burmese coastline.

Distracted by the storm, and exhausted by long hours at the controls, she failed to notice she was off-course and heading up an inlet. She was alone, without a radio, parachute or lifejacket.

The shape she was flying towards "looked too solid for cloud," she wrote in an account of her 1936 journey from Britain to New Zealand. "In a split second I realised that it was a mountain top."

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Hemmed in by thick jungle on either side of the aircraft, the New Zealander had nowhere to go. She threw her little plane into a stall turn, pulling hard on the control column and closing the throttle.

The Gull climbed steeply, slowing as it rose to a stall. She pushed hard on the rudder, and the aircraft shifted round to face the way it had come. Pulling on the power, she flew away from danger and picked up her course.

"I felt badly shaken," the usually stoic pilot admitted. She climbed and headed off the coast, trusting the plane's instruments and a hand-held compass, which she kept in a leather pouch.

The dangers kept coming. Glancing at the wing edges, Batten was alarmed to see that hammering rain had peeled away the coating of silver dope, exposing the red undercoat on the forward wing rims. With the six-cylinder, 200hp engine pushing the Gull along at 200mph, Batten feared the fabric could rip apart.

"I experienced a feeling of horror," she conceded. She ploughed further south, dropping down to Alor Star on the west coast of Malaysia but chancing the odds to escape the dreadful weather for Penang, 60 miles further south. She had been in the air for 12 hours when she reached her destination, and had covered over 2100km from Akyab in Burma.

On the ground, Batten found the canvas covering had worn bare. In parts, wood was exposed. With sticky tape from her first aid kit, Batten put temporary patches on the wings and took off for Singapore, skimming over rubber and coconut plantations as she sped south. She reached the British far east colonial city as daylight faded, four days and 17 hours after leaving England at 4.20am on October 5.

Batten was excited. The solo flight record from England to Australia of six days and 21 hours, set in October 1935 by Jimmy Broadbent, a British-born pilot, was within reach.

At 27, Jean Batten was one of the most famous fliers in the world. Two years earlier, the "try again girl" succeeded in her third attempt to fly from England to Australia, smashing Amy Johnson's record by four days. "Jeanius" proclaimed Fleet St.

Showered with adulation, gifts, endorsements and proposals, Batten - the "Garbo of the Skies" - spent many giddy months giving talks and attending receptions in her honour. She promoted recruitment to the Royal Air Force, despite its male-only status, and plugged Castrol fuel in a deal with her sponsor Lord Wakefield: 'If there were a better oil than Wakefield Castrol I would use it,' went the line.

New Zealand Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage petitioned Whitehall to make Batten a dame. She had to make do with a CBE.

Beneath the film-star looks and white flying helmet, Batten concealed a brittle psyche. Her closest friend was her mother Ellen, who she lived with. They had excluded Batten's father, Fred, a dentist in Vulcan Lane, and Jean's two brothers, from their lives. Disappointed suitors trailed in Jean's slipstream, their letters forgotten, their entreaties
to repay loans ignored.

All that mattered in Jean's world was being at the controls of an aircraft. "I seemed born to travel," she wrote, "and in flying I found the combination of two things which meant everything to me: the intoxicating drug of speed and the freedom to roam the earth."

Jean Batten arrives from Britain at Mangere Aerodrome Batten waving from cockpit in 1936. Photo / Herald files
Jean Batten arrives from Britain at Mangere Aerodrome Batten waving from cockpit in 1936. Photo / Herald files

In Singapore, RAF ground crew serviced the Gull and tidied up the fragile wings. Batten took a bath and catnapped at the station commander's residence, waking to find her arms and ankles swollen by mosquito bites.

Just before midnight, she was off again, navigating by moonlight far above Sumatra to reach Lombok. After a brief refuelling stop, she headed to Kupang in Timor, with just the Timor Sea to cross to reach Darwin - and the certain fame of a new flying record.

She was now extremely tired. Flying into strong headwinds, turbulence which shook the Gull snapped her awake. She had been going five days on seven hours sleep.
At Kupang airfield, Batten climbed stiffly out of the cramped cockpit and was asked to pose for a photo with a dozen Timorese children. "I shall not," she primly replied, " unless they are suitably clothed."

Modesty was restored with sarongs and scarves. As locals pushed the plane to a secure area beside the airstrip, the rear rubber tyre burst on a sharp stone. Batten sensed her precious record had exploded before her eyes.

The local Dutch fuel agent devised an inspired solution.Together they drove to a nearby village and bought up every rubber sponge they could find. The agent returned to the plane and filled the punctured tyre with sponges while a weary Batten, by now fighting to see straight, spent the night in a rest-house.

The golden girl of aviation was called
The golden girl of aviation was called "The Garbo of the Skies". Photo / Herald files

At dawn on October 11, a revitalised Batten fired up her tireless workhorse for the final 530 mile leg. The Timor Sea held bad memories. In April a year earlier, flying back to England in a Gipsy Moth, Batten was halfway across the water when the engine gave out, its fuel lines choked by fine dust blown from the Australian interior.

From 6000 feet, Batten was helpless as the biplane began its slow descent, silent save for the whosh of the wind. Though not a religious woman, she began to pray, loosened her shoelaces, undid her flying suit buttons and grasped a hatchet ready to hack off a wing if she had to ditch in the shark-infested Timor waters.

At the last moment, with the sea just beneath her wings, the Moth coughed into life "and sent the blood surging through my veins".

This time her Gull did not miss a beat. In fine clear skies she set a course for Darwin, and crossed the sea in a shade under four hours. The landing was far from perfect. The throttle jammed on the first approach, and Batten had to climb quickly to avoid clipping a hanger.

On the second attempt, she killed the engine on her descent and the plane turned in a circle after landing when a wheel brake locked. The crowd erupted when Batten emerged, the absolute solo record now hers.

Crowds greet Jean Batten at the end of her record-breaking 1936 flight to Auckland. Photo/Herald archive
Crowds greet Jean Batten at the end of her record-breaking 1936 flight to Auckland. Photo/Herald archive

She stayed in Darwin overnight, and took a pile of telegrams to read mid-air on the three stops before Sydney. At Longreach in central Queensland, she upset hundreds who drove for miles to catch a glimpse of the famous pilot only to be denied when she retreated to her room at the Imperial Hotel.

The next day, October 13, she flew into Sydney, with a last bit of turbulence over the Blue Mountains. Swooping across the city she looked down on roof-tops jammed with waving admirers. Grainy black and white footage shows the Gull dropping into Mascot, as light planes pay aerial homage to the record-breaking aviator. She had taken care over her appearance, and tied a pretty green silk handkerchief round her neck.

Looking fresh in her white flying suit and cap, Batten addressed the heaving crowd through a lineup of radio microphones and apologised for keeping people waiting. She earned a laugh when she offered an excuse: "After all, it's a woman's privilege to be a little late."

The Sydney Sun newspaper welcomed her as 'Empress of the Air'. Back in Britain, the Daily Mail went with 'Bravo Bonny Jean', telling its readers that 'There must be heroic stuff in Jean Batten.'

Invitations piled up but Batten had unfinished business - the final Tasman leg. Opposition mounted to her flight plan. Letters and telegrams against the trip poured in to her Hotel Australia suite where the newspaper baron Frank Packer put up a staggering £5000 if she would abandon the New Zealand journey for a lecture tour. Packer also tried flattery: "Everyone wants to see you Jean."

Jean Batten with Buddy the cat. Photo / Herald archives
Jean Batten with Buddy the cat. Photo / Herald archives

Batten wondered if the opposition was sexist. She was a woman flying alone, she wrote, and Australia, like New Zealand, was very much " man's country."
In Auckland, Fred Batten thought his daughter was best to return home by steamer. Ernest Davis, the city's mayor, sent a cable urging her to give up. Civil aviation officials chipped in, advising the Gull would be grounded because the half tonne of fuel needed for the flight exceeded the plane's safe limits.

Batten beat them to the punch. Before leaving Britain, she obtained a permit letting her take off with a hefty overload. There was another anchor holding her back - a blossoming romance with Beverley Shepherd, a lanky Australian training to be a commercial pilot.

Batten had kept the relationship away from the prying eyes of the press. He was desperate to catch up in Sydney, but Jean spurned his dinner invitation for a paid appearance at the new Luna Park funfair by the city's harbour bridge.

None of these strands tethered her for long. She got a forecast indicating decent conditions for the first few hours of her flight and flew the Gull out to the RAAF base at Richmond west of Sydney.

In flying I found the combination of two things which meant everything to me: the intoxicating drug of speed and the freedom to roam the earth.

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She was handed a cable from Ellen, which lifted her spirits. "I am confident you will succeed," her mother had written. There was another from a group of veterans who had given her a cat called Buddy on her pathfinding Gipsy Moth flight in 1934. 'Don't be put off by all the Jeremiahs,' they urged.

At Richmond she dozed fitfully, her rest disrupted by a guard stomping the corridor outside her quarters. Rising at 2.30am, she got a bleak forecast indicating a depression lay in her path. Undeterred, Batten accepted for the first time a lifejacket from one of the officers 'just to please you all.'

Sandwiches and a thermos were stashed in the cockpit and she taxied to where burning oil drums lit the runway. At the last moment a reporter pushed forward for a final few words. Over the roar of the engine, Batten made a final plea: "If I go down in the sea no one must fly out to look for me. I have chosen to make this flight and I am confident I can make it. But I have no wish to imperil the lives of others or cause trouble or expense."

Gazing at the "tense white faces" of reporters and cameramen, Batten smiled and yelled "Goodbye! I'll come back one day." She set a course for New Plymouth and had coffee and sandwiches for breakfast. Six hours out from Sydney, she was aghast to notice a fuel gauge showing just four gallons remaining in her port wing tank. Coolly Batten switched her supply to the leaking tank to conserve her remaining stocks.

Ron Batten and family at his great-aunt's memorial plaque in Majorca. Photo / Ron & Michele Batten
Ron Batten and family at his great-aunt's memorial plaque in Majorca. Photo / Ron & Michele Batten

The only signs of life she mentioned seeing were an albatross and two whales, which she sighted as the Gull ploughed though a series of lows. Nine hours and 20 minutes into her flight, her arms weary from wrestling with the controls, Batten whizzed by a rocky shape.

"I shouted with joy," she wrote, and moments later dropped low over New Plymouth to acknowledge the hundreds who standing in heavy rain at the airport. Batten briefly wondered whether to land, before opening the throttle and pointing the Gull north.

The journey ended at 5.05pm, 11 days and 45 minutes after leaving England. At Mangere there was pandemonium. Thousands jammed the grass airfield, including her father Fred, who had left a note at the Vulcan Lane clinic stating: Gone to Aerodrome to meet Jean. Mayor Davis told the crowd : "Jean, you are very naughty girl and I really think you want a good spanking for giving us such a terribly anxious time here."

Weary but elated and back on home soil, Batten got a hug from her father. "It's good to be home," she smiled, before telling the crowd it was "the very greatest moment of my life."
For the next few hectic weeks, Batten, under a publicity contract, toured the country signing books at a shilling a pop and giving brief speeches in cinemas. The whirlwind tour wore her down and she collapsed under the strain. Savage's Government paid for Batten to recuperate on the West Coast.

The memorial plaque on the grave of aviation pioneer Jean Batten in the municipal cemetery in Majorca. Photo / Ron and Michele Batten
The memorial plaque on the grave of aviation pioneer Jean Batten in the municipal cemetery in Majorca. Photo / Ron and Michele Batten

In February, she sailed to Sydney, eager to see Shepherd. She never did. On the very day of her arrival, having denied to dockside reporters that she was secretly engaged, she learned Shepherd's plane was overdue. A desperate Batten joined the search, which ended when wreckage was found in dense bush.

Her biographer Ian Mackersey wrote that the tragedy plunged Batten into a deep depression. She broke one more record, flying back to England in 1937. The Daily Express splashed her arrival on its front page under the banner: "The girl who has beaten all the men".

That was her last great flight. She withdrew from public life and travelled with her mother. Together they lived in the Caribbean, and eventually Spain, where in 1966, Ellen died in Jean's arms on the island of Tenerife.

Sixteen years later, Batten died, but so completely had she faded from the public gaze that five years passed before Mackersey learned of the circumstances of her lonely death in Palma and burial in a pauper's grave.

Eighty years after her record-breaking flight to Auckland, Batten's name endures. Her Gull is suspended above duty free shops at Auckland Airport, and travellers pass Anthony Stones' statue outside the terminal. Motat holds some of her trophies, Auckland Museum her compass and will.

In Rotorua, where she was born Jane - she used Jean - Gardner Batten on September 15, 1909, her image is on a statue in Jean Batten Square. Iwi named her Hine-o-te-Rangi, or Daughter of the Sky.

Google's Jean Batten doodle. Photo/ supplied
Google's Jean Batten doodle. Photo/ supplied

Three weeks ago, on the 107th anniversary of her birth, Google honoured Batten's legacy with a doodle on its home page. It showed her on the lower wing of her Gipsy Moth, smiling and cradling Buddy the cat. The global search engine picked Batten, it said, as a reminder "to fly fiercely towards our boldest dreams".