13 Jun 2018

Flight of Fancy: The Lost Pilots

From Nine To Noon, 10:07 am on 13 June 2018

The first non-stop flight from Australia to London made history earlier this year, with a duration of 17 hours and 20 minutes.

Ninety years ago, an Australian aviatrix became the the first woman to complete the same flight – in a two-seater light plane over five months.

But as momentous as Jessie 'Chubbie' Keith-Miller's 1927 journey was, it would ultimately be over-shadowed by a crime of passion and a scandalous court case and largely forgotten.

In a new book The Lost Pilots, American scholar Corey Mead tells the almost unbelievably dramatic true story of Keith-Miller and her co-pilot Bill Lancaster – their avionic adventure, clandestine relationship and the notoriety that followed.

The late 1920s were an exciting time for aviation when world records were being set and broken all the time, says Mead, an assistant professor of English at City University of New York.

"If someone dreamed of fame and fortune, aviation was a field where everything was wide open to achieve that."

Keith-Miller was once an adventurous young woman trapped in a dull marriage in Australia.

Hungry to experience the world, she persuaded her husband to let her travel to London with a friend.

"She got married early, probably trying to escape the dreariness of her family life, but that didn't end up working any better. She and her husband were perfectly good friends but not an exciting couple."

In London, Keith-Miller met Bill Lancaster – a handsome ex- RAF pilot who shared her taste for adventure.

"Bill saw a lot of death in the trenches, he was someone who by nature was fairly reckless."

But at the time there was not much work around for pilots and Lancaster needed money.

"He thought 'I'll set a world record and fame and fortune will be mine'."

He and Keith-Miller bonded and when she learned of his plan got on board with it.

Without her, the flight would never have happened, Mead says.

"Bill had the concept. There was new type of light plane – an Avian III biplane – and he knew he wanted to fly that and knew he wanted to set a record from England to Australia.

"But in terms of actually making it happen he was basically nowhere and honestly would have stayed at nowhere were Jesse not introduced into the picture."

Keith-Miller was a natural hustler who set about organising the practicalities of funding sponsorship, Mead says.

The logistics of the flight were daunting and it took three to four months to plan the 40 stops between London and Darwin.

The novelty of a woman being involved in such an endeavour helped Keith-Miller find sponsors.

Lancaster gave her some flying lessons and she took to it like a natural.

"She quickly became an extremely talented pilot in her own right, ultimately ending up a finer aviator than he was."

The journey they undertook was "insanely dangerous", Mead says.

"The plane looks like a couple of matchsticks with tissue paper strung across it, and they were flying at relatively low altitudes the weather for most of the trip was absolutely atrocious."

When the pair were flying over Burma, Keith-Miller discovered a poisonous snake in the cockpit. She stomped it to death and threw it over the side.

Later, a crash in Sumatra forced them to return to Singapore for two months to recover and have the plane repaired.

"They had terrible injuries  – severe injuries, bones sticking out of their skin, and Lancaster's teeth protruded through his lips. They were crawling bloody on the ground, burning oil taking out parts of their skin."

But once they were out of hospital, the pair jumped back in the plane.

The generation that saw WWI were "fearless", Mead says.

At some point of the trip they become lovers, but with both being married had to keep it a secret.

"Almost like soldiers in war it was an incredibly intense experience to have been through together. Not just the constant danger they faced, but the adventures in brand new environments and constantly surrounded by new people.

"It was almost inevitable they would fall in love about six weeks into their journey."

When Keith-Miller and Lancaster reached Darwin, fame if not fortune followed.

Fom the moment of landing, Keith-Miller's star eclipsed Lancaster's, Mead says.

"It was longest flight ever made by a woman. She was first woman to ever cross the equator in the air, the first woman to ever fly longer than 8,000 miles – she was a homeland hero."

After a national tour of Australia, Hollywood beckoned and the pair were invited to America to take part in a movie. But the deal went sour, money started to run out and the Great Depression hit.

"Suddenly despite their fame – and not just for them, flying jobs are scarce everywhere they go – they're celebrated, but when it comes to actual practical paying jobs they're not there."

The pair started to take any job they could to get by and came up with the idea that a memoir might be money-spinner.

From Hollywood they headed to Miami and Keith-Miller settled in with a ghost writer.

"The ghost writer they choose is this ridiculously handsome young charming man called Haden Clarke who moves into this house Bill and Jesse had rented in Miami."

While Lancaster was away in Mexico looking for work, Clarke and Keith-Miller became lovers. When Lancaster came home and realised, a huge row erupted.

On April 20 1932, Clarke was killed by a gunshot to the head and Lancaster was the prime suspect.

Lancaster was charged with murder and the court case that followed became a national scandal.

"There's this incredible court case, a surprise acquittal and then a disappearance in the Sahara which isn't solved until 30 years later when Lancaster's skelelton is discovered and beside it his diary wrapped in plastic."