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My Life

Chapter XVIII: Across the Tasman Sea

page 247

Chapter XVIII: Across the Tasman Sea

Releasing the brakes, I gave the engine full throttle, and the Gull roared along the flare path. The bright line of flares flashed past the left wing, and nearing the last one I gently eased the aeroplane off the ground. Swift as an arrow the Gull climbed through the darkness, circling the aerodrome to gain height, then setting off for Sydney. I flashed my torch across the instrument panel: revs., 2100; oil-pressure, 42 lbs.; altitude, 1500 feet; air speed, 140 m.p.h., etc. All was well, and I breathed a sigh of relief that at last I was on my way.

As I flew towards Sydney I felt supremely confident of success, and had I for one second doubted the reliability of my aeroplane and its faithful engine I should never have gone on. The myriad lights of Sydney were slipping beneath the wings, and I picked out the line of lights marking the harbour bridge. The Gull speeded on, and, steering a course for New Plymouth, 1330 miles distant, I left the Australian coast. I felt tremendously lonely as I looked back at Sydney and the land grew fainter, until at last it faded intopage 248the distance, and I was left alone to fly hour after hour with only the sky and the vast expanse of the ocean to look at.

The time factor had been very important on this flight, and ever since leaving England I had made all calculations in Greenwich Mean Time. There were two clocks on my dashboard, one set to Greenwich time, and the other was adjusted to the local time of each place at which I landed. I had been losing daylight at the rate of approximately an hour for every thousand miles I travelled eastward. On some sections, such as Karachi to Akyab, there had been only 10 hours 24 minutes' daylight, whereas had I been flying in the reverse direction—i.e., westward—there would have been 13 hours 36 minutes' daylight for the same section. On such a long flight the time difference is considerable, Sydney time being 10 hours 2 minutes in advance of Greenwich. Auckland time is two hours ahead of that of Sydney. Consequently, although I left Richmond at 4.37 a.m., local time, on October 16, in England the time was approximately 6.35 on the evening of October 15.

I smiled as I remembered my friends in England. "They will just be dressing for dinner," I thought as I sipped a cup of coffee and took out the packet of sandwiches for my breakfast.

On leaving Australia I had encountered scattered alto-cumulus cloud and climbed to 5000 feet. Three hours out I glided down through a gap to check my drift on the white-capped waves. As I flew low over the sea I saw a silvery gleam as a shoal of flying-fish leapedpage 249from the sea to speed along, then suddenly plunge in again. I passed just south of a big storm, but dark clouds loomed ahead as storms gathered on the horizon. At this stage, just six hours out from Sydney, I noticed that the gauge on the port centre-section tank registered only four gallons. "A petrol leak," I thought immediately, as I had not used any petrol from that tank and the engine had been running on the large rear tank. The leak was not serious, however, as the tanks did not interconnect, and there was a very large petrol margin. Nevertheless I switched over to the leaking tank to use up the remaining petrol, to conserve the rest of the supply just in case I might need it all.

I made an entry in the log, and noted the time, which was now 01.00 hours, G.M.T.—just an hour past midnight in England, I thought—and made a note of the date, which was now October 16. There was an object in the sky just ahead, and the machine flashed past an albatross. I had seen no ship nor any sign of life during the seven hours since leaving land, and I was grateful for the sight of the lovely bird. I felt completely isolated from the rest of the world, and the only ties were the thoughts of my friends, who would now be wondering how I was faring over this lonely ocean.

The machine was drifting considerably, and I flew low to check up the rate of the drift. I had just decided to alter course seven degrees to port to compensate when I saw a jet of water rise from the sea just ahead. There it was again, and as I drew near I sawpage 250the gigantic form of a whale as the great creature rose to the surface of the sea to spout. Five minutes later I flew over another whale as it came up to spout, then plunged into the depths as the water rose in a spray. The immense back of the whale looked exactly like a reef with waves breaking over it.

Visibility had become steadily worse, and storms were drawing in round the machine on all sides. As I plunged into the storm area heavy rain beat down on the Gull, which was tossed about like a feather. The sea was whipped up into a foaming mass, and I lost sight of it completely as I flew blind through storms of such fierce intensity that I almost despaired of ever reaching land. My arm ached trying to steady the machine and steer an accurate compass course. As soon as I would fly through one storm it was only to find curtains of black nimbus heralding another. At times I would fly very low, trying to keep the sea in view, and when that was blotted out I immediately climbed to a safe height and flew on entirely by instruments.

Tired and disheartened I watched the hours pass on as the weather grew even worse, until it became a supreme effort to keep my eyes on the instruments, while sheets of rain beat against the cabin. I realized that the slightest mistake would tip the scales against me and the Gull would go spinning down into the sea. The strain was terrific, and my spirits sank when nine hours out there was no land to be seen, only an occasional glimpse of the sea beneath, when the dark rain-clouds which pressed round the Gull parted for a few minutes.

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"If only I could see ahead," I thought desperately as I switched over to the starboard wing-tank 9 hours 20 minutes out. "If only I could see land. . . ." Suddenly a dark blur loomed ahead through the rain, and the Gull flashed past a small rocky island.

"Land!" I shouted with joy, recognizing the island as a rock just off the coast. Within a few seconds the Gull swept over New Plymouth, absolutely on its course, 9 hours 29 minutes after leaving Richmond and 10 days 23 hours 45 minutes out from England.

It was still raining heavily, and all but the base of Mount Egmont was shrouded in black cloud. My altitude was less than 500 feet as I flew over the town, and I could see people running into the streets waving a welcome.

The weather looked bad to the north, and rain was still streaming down. "Should I land at New Plymouth?" I wondered, as I flew over the large modern aerodrome and saw the big crowd waiting to see me pass. The Gull had lowered the Tasman record of 11 hours 58 minutes, previously held by Flight-Lieutenant Charles Ulm and his crew. Why not be content and land? After all, I was terribly tired, and it would require a tremendous effort to continue on to Auckland.

Throttling back I glided low over the aerodrome in salute. It would be so easy to land now and be welcomed home by my countrymen, then sleep. "No," I thought quickly, remembering my intention before leaving England—to make the first direct flight rightpage 252through to Auckland, my home town. Opening up the throttle I flew on towards Auckland, 154 weary miles farther north. The weather had been too bad over the Tasman for me even to think of lunch, so I now had time to relax and eat a few sandwiches. Conditions improved, and I feasted my eyes on the mountainous coastline.

An hour later I sighted Auckland, and, escorted by a number of machines from the Aero Club, flew over the aerodrome. The ground was black with people, and hundreds of cars were parked in long lines along the boundary.

I closed the throttle and glided down to a landing, and as the wheels of the Gull came to rest felt a great glow of pleasure and pride. This was really journey's end, and I had flown 14,000 miles to link England, the heart of the Empire, with the city of Auckland, New Zealand, in 11 days 45 minutes, the fastest time in history. With this flight I had realized the ultimate of my ambition, and I fervently hoped that my flight would prove the forerunner of a speedy air service from England.

As I taxied the Gull up to the large reception dai's where civic authorities and representatives of the Government and the Services waited to welcome me I was delighted to see my father, and recognized many friends among the crowd. The machine came to rest, and I switched off the engine of my faithful Gull for the last time on that flight and entered up the time of my landing, which was 5.05 a.m., G.M.T.

I struggled out of the bulky life-saving jacket, and

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Black and white photograph of aeroplane flying over city landscape.

Flying over Auckland
Photo "New Zealand Herald"

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Black and white photograph of crowd and cars surrounding aeroplane.

Arriving at Auckland
Photo "New Zealand Herald"

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opening the door of the cockpit stepped on to the wing. In their enthusiasm hundreds of people had broken the barriers and were running towards the machine, and dozens of policemen were trying to hold the tremendous crowd back from the Gull, which was soon surrounded by a wildly cheering multitude. Yes, I decided, this was certainly the greatest moment of my life. The triumph of the flight had been complete, and I felt a desire to stay the hand of time and enjoy to the full this hour of success.

My father affectionately greeted me, and I went up to the dai's to receive an official welcome. I was almost completely deaf from the roar of the engine, and could scarcely hear the sound of my own voice when, following the many speeches of welcome, I was asked to broadcast. There was a gigantic traffic jam between the aerodrome and the city, thirteen miles away, and after a welcome cup of tea at the club-house I drove through lines of cheering people.

On arrival at the hotel I found hundreds of cables and telegrams of congratulations from many parts of the world. For several weeks four secretaries were kept busy acknowledging the messages, which totalled several thousands. There were congratulations from Governors-General, Prime Ministers, Ambassadors, Ministers of the Crown, High Commissioners, the Air Ministers of Britain and France, leading aero clubs, including the Royal Aero Club of Great Britain and the Aero-Club de France, the Royal Aeronautical Society and the Society of British Aircraft Construction, the Royal Automobile Club, aviation authoritiespage 254in South American countries, from different societies and institutions in many parts of the world, to mention a few of the representative messages.

At the civic reception I felt deeply honoured when the Mayor of Auckland announced that it had been decided to perpetuate my name and keep the memory of my flight to New Zealand ever green by naming an important thoroughfare in the city "Jean Batten Place."

After only a few days in my home town I left for Wellington. I had financed this venture entirely by myself, and it was imperative that the flight should pay for itself. As I was entirely dependent on myself it was of the utmost importance that I should more than clear expenses to enable me to continue my flying activities. So it was that almost immediately upon arriving in New Zealand I had to gather my remaining strength and commence a tour of the Dominion, giving talks at various cinema theatres. When I commenced the tour I knew that I was overdrawing on my reserve energy, but insisted on continuing.

Talks were given in Auckland, Hamilton, and Wellington, but after my arrival in Christchurch I was too tired to go on, and upon medical advice was reluctantly obliged to cancel the tour and take a rest. The Prime Minister of New Zealand, Mr Savage, who had sent wonderful messages of congratulation and given a reception in my honour during my visit to Wellington, very generously invited me to take a holiday for several weeks as guest of the Government. I was most grateful for this kind offer of hospitality, andpage 255enjoyed a wonderful holiday at the Franz Joseph Glacier.

Although I knew my country so well, I had not previously had an opportunity of seeing this glacier. Never shall I forget the magnificent spectacle of the great river of ice. Dark green sub-tropical vegetation and exquisite ferns covered the foothills, and grew to the very edge of the ice. To complete the matchless setting great snow-covered peaks guarded the top of the glacier as the Southern Alps towered like a chain of giants southward, and Mount Cook raised its summit to 12,349 feet.

After my stay at Franz Joseph I drove to Lake Wakatipu to do some trout-fishing, and spent happy days amid most glorious scenery.

On my return to Auckland it was announced that the fund raised for me now totalled almost £2000, and I felt deeply grateful to my countrymen for their help. Whereas on my first flight round New Zealand there were no regular air services then in operation, I now found a network of airways extending over the entire length of the Dominion, and speedy services linked the North Island and the South, enabling people to travel in speed and comfort. For the comparatively small population of less than 2,000,000 people I considered this network of airways a great achievement. Within the space of a few years aviation has made tremendous strides, and the majority of the people are very air-minded.

During the Christmas season I enjoyed a holiday with my mother and father, and we drove to Rotorua,page 256my birthplace, where a reception was to be held by the Maori tribes. At this reception many spirited hakas were danced by the Maori men, and the pretty raven-haired native girls performed skilful poi dances, in which they twirl tiny balls on the ends of strings, keeping perfect time, and the beat of the pois on their flaxen skirts forms a soft accompaniment to their singing. I was presented with a valuable kiwi feather mat which had once belonged to a chieftain and given the picturesque name of Hine-o-te-Rangi—"Daughter of the Sky."

Great was my joy when I received news of three important trophies that had been awarded to me for my New Zealand flight. For the second year in succession the Royal Aero Club had awarded me the Britannia Trophy for the most meritorious flight of the year by a British subject. The Segrave Trophy for the most outstanding demonstration of the possibilities of transport on land, sea, or in the air had also been awarded to me by unanimous vote of a committee representative of aviation, motoring, and the Press. This was a very great honour, and I felt that my dearest wish would be realized when a speedy air service was inaugurated between England and New Zealand. It was announced shortly afterwards that I had won the Harmon International Trophy for the greatest flight of the year by an airwoman, and that the trophy for airmen was awarded to Howard Hughes the American flyer. This was the second time I had won the Harmon Trophy, for the previous year I had held it jointly with the great American airwoman Amelia Earhart, whom I hadpage 257always wanted to meet, and who only a few months later lost her life so tragically.

I stayed some time in Auckland renewing old friendships, and felt that it was indeed good to be home again. Lazing away the hours sunbathing on the golden sands of wide beaches and swimming in the clear blue waters, I let the world roll by for a little and felt utter contentment. It had been my intention to settle in New Zealand after my flight, but sometimes I found myself gazing out over the blue Tasman, as I had so often done as a child, and longing to go forth again. "Why not rest on your laurels and settle down?" many of my friends suggested. "After all, you have had more than your share of success. Apart from your records remember you are the first woman to fly from England to Australia and back, to fly from England to South America, to cross the South Atlantic Ocean, and the first airwoman to fly from England to New Zealand and conquer the Tasman. No one can ever take these distinctions from you, so what is the use of going on and on until eventually your luck deserts you and disaster overtakes you?"

"Yes, yes, I know," I would say, determined to take the wise advice, and, putting all ideas of further flights from my mind, would thereupon make preparations to settle down. It seemed that all through my life I had been forced to make these big decisions and usually alone. I wanted very much to settle down in my own country and lead a calm, peaceful life, but in my heart I knew only too well that I was destined to be a wanderer. I seemed born to travel, and in flying I found thepage 258combination of the two things which meant everything to me: the intoxicating drug of speed and freedom to roam the earth. In my innermost thoughts I knew the fire of adventure that burned within me was not yet quenched, and that urge was drawing me on—to what?