Peter Batten: the OHA's top gun

The sky's the limit for most, but not Peter Batten.  For his entire career, Peter has been pushing the limits in aviation whether that involved flying fighter jets for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) or developing the next generation of helicopters. 

Peter started at Haileybury's Brighton campus as a year 7 student in 1969.  He moved to Keysborough in 1971 before graduating in 1974.  This was a time of change at Haileybury.  Michael Aikman replaced David Bradshaw as principal in 1974 and the first gymnasium and pool were built at Keysborough.  The gymnasium was used for assemblies and speech nights because there was nothing as august as the Aikman Hall in those days.

After finishing at Haileybury, Peter completed a science degree at the University of Melbourne (by way of the RAAF Academy) but what he learnt at the RAAF over the next 13 years would be far more exciting.  Peter joined the RAAF in 1975 and remained there until 1988.  During that time, he flew in fighter aircraft such as the FA/18, F15, F16 and Mirage.  He also flew in operations with numerous other aircraft, including the F14 Tomcat, which was the plane Tom Cruise "flew" in Top Gun.  In fact, this Hollywood hit is a good reference point for two highlights of Peter's career with the RAAF, except that everything Peter did was real!

First, Peter completed the RAAF's Fighter Combat Instructor course which is the Australian equivalent to being a top gun pilot. The course made him an expert in all facets of fighter flying and equipped him with the skills to take a squadron to war.  Since it's the most demanding and expensive training course in the Australian defence force, only the best are offered a place and only the best of the best pass. 

Second, Peter has ejected from a Mirage fighter jet.  For those who don't know what ejecting is, do you remember the climax of Top Gun where Tom Cruise and his co-pilot bailout of their aircraft using jet propelled seats when the engines fail?  Tom's co-pilot is tragically killed in the incident.  Well, Peter did precisely that in 1987 when his Mirage jet suffered an engine failure while flying 50km off the coast of NSW.  Thankfully, Peter was unharmed and was safely picked up from the ocean by a rescue helicopter.

In 1988, Peter retired from the RAAF and began flying for Qantas.  For an ex-RAAF pilot who "got to play with the best toys in the world", flying with Qantas was comparatively mundane.  Still, for the next 26 years Peter flew 747s to Rome and London and A330s Airbuses to New York as well as flying 767s and A330s domestically.  Fortunately, Peter's time with Qantas passed without incident apart from the odd lightning strike.  Peter attributes this to the very high safety standards at Qantas and the calibre of its training.

For the last few years, Peter has been working on the development of ultralight helicopters.  This YouTube video of one of the helicopters Peter has developed will give you some idea of the innovative work he's been doing. These helicopters either seat one person or are unmanned.  Recently, Peter has turned his focus to developing an electric-powered helicopter or a liquid fuel-electric hybrid.  Due to the energy density of batteries being only one third of liquid fuel, an entirely electric option is not yet achievable but is still something to work towards.  Peter believes the benefits of these ultralight helicopters are enormous.  They will be faster and cheaper to manufacture than conventional helicopters and could have numerous applications, including in disaster relief and defence.

Peter's current work is all about pushing the limits of today's technology.  Peter says, "The world is moving rapidly towards a place full of autonomous systems. The underlying artificial intelligence that helps us in so many ways will become ubiquitous. Right now the time is ripe to develop skills in coding and mechatronics to create devices that support this inevitability."  Peter doesn't think that his former job as an airline pilot will be made redundant by this technology quite yet, but believes that pilotless cargo planes are imminent and inevitable.  "Trials and prototypes are being implemented now. Like all unmanned systems the acceptance will be slow and progressive. I would expect the air routes flown will be different to the air routes for passenger aircraft and possibly they will operate out of cargo only airports. There are many advantages in having unmanned cargo aircraft but as with any aviation system it must be safe and proven as such."

Peter has called Melbourne, Perth, Malaysia, the Philippines, Darwin and Williamtown home but now resides in Sydney with his wife and children.  The broader range of schooling opportunities for his children brought him to Sydney.  Peter's wife is an air traffic controller which Peter jokes allows her to tell pilots (like him) where to go!

Peter's advice to younger OHA members is that life is for learning and to be passionate about what you do.  Peter says that a career in civil or defence aviation is challenging but rewarding.  "Without the passion to take the hard knocks and pick yourself up and have another go you will not succeed, but when you finally graduate to the front left seat, you can look back on all that hardship and say to yourself—'Yep, it was all worth it'." 

Although Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer did all the flying in Top Gun, Peter says that real flying is an equal opportunity activity for both men and women. "The RAAF graduated its first female fighter pilot last year and Qantas has a significant number of female pilots."

As for the role of Haileybury in his life, Peter says, "Without the structure, discipline, diversity, opportunity and encouragement provided by Haileybury I would not have achieved the career I had.  The effect was profound and the memories strong."

In short …

  • Is there a film you'd recommend to anyone?  Top Gun of course!
  • What are you looking forward to in 2019 and beyond? Building our hybrid helicopter and Top Gun 2!
  • What's your favourite band?  It's a tie between Supertramp and Fleetwood Mac.
  • If you could invite anyone to dinner (dead or living), who would they be?  Einstein, da Vinci, Newton and Galileo. Very clever people who thought outside the square and were not afraid to voice their radical ideas.
  • What do you think happened to Malaysian Airlines flight MH370?  I can't think of a rational explanation for why it went missing. Possibly, it was poor training resulting in an inability to control a loss of cabin pressure, a hijacking attempt gone wrong or perhaps suicide, but close examination of these scenarios doesn't make a lot of sense.  Unless the aircraft is found, we may never know.

To read more about Peter ejecting from a Mirage in 1987, click here.