14 Dec 2017

Jean Batten, the first woman to receive the FAI Gold Air Medal

Jean Batten was the first women to be awarded the FAI's highest award, the FAI Gold Air Medal. Awarded 80 years ago in 1937 she got it for the remarkable feat of flying solo from England to New Zealand – the first person ever to do so.

She was 27-years old when she made the record flight, which took her a total of 11 days 45 minutes. A young woman at the height of her fame, she attracted movie-star style crowds wherever she went and earned the nickname the 'Greta Garbo of the Skies' for her remarkable achievements and public persona.

On her speaking tours and public engagements she travelled with a black cat called Buddy, wore red lipstick in the cockpit, and knew the power of a well taken photograph. She was an international superstar of aviation, famous across the Western world in the 1930s as it was gripped by flying fever and the exploits of the remarkable men and women who pushed the boundaries of flight in that decade.

Her story starts in Rotorua, New Zealand, where she was born on 15 September 1909. Her father, a dentist, moved the family to Auckland a few years later, and as a teenager she studied ballet and the piano. But aged 18 the direction of her life changed when Australian pilot Charles Kingsford Smith took her for a flight in his Southern Cross plane. She decided then and there to become a pilot.

Her mother became her biggest supporter, and in 1929 the pair moved around the world to London, where Jean enrolled in the London Aeroplane Club. She took her first solo flight in 1930 and earned her private pilots licence by 1932.

It was the time of Amy Johnson, perhaps the best-known female aviator of all time. Johnson achieved international fame in an instant when, in 1930, she became the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia. She flew 18,000km in 19 days, and crash-landed in Darwin, Northern Territory. Fame and wealth quickly followed.

Inspired, Batten set out to break Amy's record – and after two failed attempts she finally did, flying from England to Australia in May 1934 in a Gipsy Moth in 14 days 22 hours. The achievement brought her success: trophies, a sponsorship contract with Castrol Oil, a publishing deal and speaking tours swiftly followed.

She didn't rest on her laurels. In 1935 she set a world record flying from England to Brazil flying a Percival Gull Six. Then the next year she completed her record solo flight from England to New Zealand.

Taking off from Kent, England at 4.20am on 5 October 1936 she had installed two extra fuel tanks on her Gull. She flew day and night, sleeping little, refuelling numerous times, and sometimes enduring bad weather. She crossed Europe, the Middle East and Asia before arriving in Darwin after only five days and 21 hours – a full 24 hours faster than the previous record holder, Jimmy Broadbent.

As news of her flight flashed around the world, Batten flew on south, to Sydney where she arrived on 13 October. There she rested and waited for a weather window over the Tasman Sea.

Three days later on 16 October she took off at first light from Richmond Aerodrome in Sydney having announced that no one should look for her if she went down at sea. She seemed fearless, but later revealed that she "almost lost her nerve" on this leg of the flight, entirely over open water.

An expert navigator – her father had paid for her early navigation lessons – she hit New Zealand dead on, and arrived at Auckland's Mangere Aerodrome at about 5pm, ten-and-a-half hours after taking off. She was greeted by a crowd of thousands. She had flown from England to New Zealand in 11 days 45 minutes.

A few months later, after a speaking tour of New Zealand, she flew back to England. It was her last long distance flight.

Worldwide, she became the most famous New Zealander of the 1930s. And she is still recognised as a heroine in her native country today. Her face has appeared on stamps and bank notes, and now when you fly into New Zealand you will likely land at the Jean Batten International Terminal at Auckland Airport.

Her flight earned her many global prizes and awards, including the prestigious FAI Gold Air Medal for 1937. She was the first woman to win it.

As recorded in the minutes of the FAI Conference from that year, Colonel Walaardt-Sacré from the Royal Netherlands Aeronautical Association explained why.

"With this flight she confirmed her formidable tenacity, her unconditional perseverance and her exceptional gifts for air navigation. By all of this, she has demonstrated what can be asked of aviation today if it is approached scientifically. She has surprised the masses and at the same time given them confidence in aviation."

He continued: "In our opinion, she has thus been able to contribute strongly by her actions, her work, her performance, her initiative and her dedication, to the progress and development of Aeronautics. She is therefore worthy of receiving the highest honour that the FAI can award – the FAI Gold Air Medal."

The flight and the year marked the high point of Jean Batten's public life. World War Two brought the 1930s golden era of aviation to an abrupt close, and Batten's plane was commissioned for the war effort in England, but, failing a medical, she was not allowed to fly it.

After the war, she lived on the edge of public view, never regaining the heyday of her 20s. She travelled, still with her mother, before settling in Tenerife, Spain. After her mother died in 1966 Batten stayed in Tenerife until 1982, when, after a brief sojourn in England she moved to Majorca, in the Mediterranean.

She died there, aged 73, after an infection from a dog bite, on 22 November 1982. Sadly, her death remained unreported and unknown to the wider world until five years later. She was buried on the island in a paupers' mass grave.

Despite the loneliness of her death, it is how she flew in her life – alone, through the skies, skirting between clouds and weather, flying above the land as it rushed past below. Many decades on from her record flight, Jean Batten's record flight, and her legacy of inspirational adventure lives on.