Jean Batten and Buddy the cat

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Buddy – a budding aviator?

For a short period New Zealand’s most celebrated aviator, Jean Batten, flew with a cat named Buddy as her mascot.

In late May 1934 Batten completed a solo flight from England to Australia in 14 days and 22½ hours, beating the previous women’s record set by English pilot Amy Johnson. During her lengthy journey she had been given numerous ‘mascots’ but when she was asked on her arrival in Sydney if she had a special one, she replied:

No I did not carry any special mascots, although I treasured specially a little Australian flag, a small Union Jack and a Maori mascot.

That soon changed. On 8 June 1934 Batten met a group of ex-servicemen at the Prince of Wales Military Hospital in Randwick, Sydney. During her visit they presented her with a small black kitten ‘for luck’. She named him ‘Buddy’ and he subsequently accompanied her during her four-week tour of the country.

This tour included a train journey to Melbourne on 11 June, and flights to Canberra on the 15th and Brisbane on the 17th. Batten was flown to Canberra by the Civil Aviation Department, but chose to fly her own plane, a Gipsy Moth, to Brisbane. On this occasion Buddy was reportedly stowed in the plane’s luggage locker. En route they stopped off at Coffs Harbour and Newcastle, and when they finally landed in Brisbane they were met by a crowd of 25,000 people.

In late June 1934 Batten and Buddy sailed to New Zealand. Her Gipsy Moth had been stowed on board during the voyage, allowing Batten to use it during her six-week tour of the country. She flew to civic receptions in more than 20 towns, with Buddy again stowed in the luggage locker.

While Batten was in New Zealand she was looked after by Bob Smillie and his wife Doris. Smillie was the New Zealand manager of Batten’s ‘patron saint’, oil magnate Lord Wakefield (of Castrol Oil). The couple found her difficult to deal with and also had the unenviable task of cleaning up after Buddy. In an interview with Ian Mackersey, author of Jean Batten: Garbo of the skies, Bob Smillie explained that:

We obviously had to be careful how we handled her because she kept quoting Lord Wakefield to us. For weeks I ran around New Zealand feeling like the local flunkey, carrying her handbag and becoming her cat Buddy’s nurse. Every time she flew with it in the locker there was this terrible mess to be cleaned up.

In September 1934 Batten and Buddy sailed back to Australia. Although he was ‘an Australian’, Buddy was temporarily restricted from disembarking. After his release he reportedly continued as Batten’s mascot for several more months, travelling all the while in the Moth’s luggage locker. According to an Australian female pilot of the 1930s:

The poor thing became so neurotic and developed such an aversion to aeroplanes that he would run away and hide at the mere sight of one.

In April 1935 Batten returned triumphantly to England, becoming the first female pilot to fly from England to Australia and back. She left Buddy in the care of Australian airline pilot, Beverley Shepherd, with whom she had fallen in love.

Batten did not return to Australia again until October 1936. She stopped for just two days during her attempt to fly from England to New Zealand, waiting for the weather over the Tasman to improve for the final part of her journey. There is no mention of her visiting Buddy during this period. But those encouraging her to continue on to New Zealand (whilst others tried to discourage her) included the ex-servicemen who had given her Buddy in 1934. In her book Alone in the sky, Batten recalled receiving their telegram, which read: ‘Good on you Jean, don’t be put off by all the Jeremiahs you’ll make it alright’.

When she reached New Zealand on 16 October she also reportedly had with her a ‘small toy cat’ presented to her in Australia as a mascot.  Perhaps the servicemen had sent her the toy as a reminder of Buddy, but it seems more likely that another well-wisher had remembered she had had a cat as a mascot on her previous journey.

There are no further references to Buddy in contemporary newspaper reports or in biographies of Batten, and it is unclear what became of him. Shepherd, to whom Batten had entrusted Buddy before returning to England in April 1935, died in a plane crash on 19 February 1937, the day Batten arrived back in the country – reportedly, to be reunited with him.