“Verdict On a Lost Flyer—The Story of Bill Lancaster”, by Ralph Barker. 238 pp. 9 3/4 in. x 6 in. (George G. Ilarrap &Co. Ltd, 182, High Holborn, London, 45s.)
When I read and greatly enjoyed Ralph Barker’s “Great Mysteries of the Air” I knew that this author was capable of an equally absorbing full-length story of one aviator, perhaps one who had figured in this book of true aviation mysteries. His story of Bill Lancaster is that book.
To write a full-length book round one England-Australia flight is something of a feat in itself, helped along by the detailed account of the murder case in which Lancaster was involved in America and in which he was defended by James M. Carson and acquitted. For the only real fame as a flyer that Bill Lancaster achieved was his flight from Croydon to Darwin in 1927/28 in an Avro Avian 111 with 80 h.p. Cirrus engine, accompanied by Mrs. Keith Miller, a lady who was to lead Lancaster into so much trouble. Lancaster had been an RAF pilot and had made pioneer parachute jumps at the Hendon Air Display in 1925 from a Fairey Fawn but was not a very experienced pilot when he set off on his great trail-blazing flight. (It never ceases to surprise me how inexperienced some of the pioneer record-breaking pilots were.) The Avian crashed at Singapore and had it not been repaired by the RAF would not have attained its objective—it seems wrong in some ways to attribute success to machines which were rather too much like the old spade, new if you discount two new handles and several new blades. However, that was the way it was, and Lancaster and his lady passenger achieved considerable fame on arrival at Darwin.
From then on, Lancaster, a married man, had a bitter time. Jobs were scarce and when the pair went to America seeking work, Mrs. Miller proved a fine pilot, having but recently learned to fly, and left Lancaster far behind. He then took on a dubious assignment in innocence and refusing to fly dope across the border, returned to find his mistress infatuated by a young lover who, shot in the bed next to Lancaster, set off the famous murder trial.
From this the book gains, because it is both a detailed account of the Australian flight and of the long and difficult fight by Carson to get Lancaster acquitted; two for the price of me, as it were, because the days of pioneer fliers and of the great legal advocates, types of men gone long since, can hardly fail to make a fascinating story. As handled by Barker, this is an outstandingly interesting book.
It is also one of the saddest hooks I have ever read. For after the murder trial Lancaster loses Mrs. Miller and, in an attempt to reinstate his name, is lost in the Sahara while trying in 1933 to set a record for the Lympne to the Cape flight. He attempted this in a special single-seater Avro Avian with Gipsy 11 engine, the one built for Kingsford Smith and known as “Southern Cross Minor”. It came down near Bidon Cinq and Lancaster lived for eight terrible days and nights, craving rescue and water. His diary was recovered from the wrecked Avian quite by chance, in 1962. It is published in full and does nothing to cheer up those who read it. The cause of the crash seems to have been fuel starvation, perhaps through sand in the petrol.
Barker’s reason for publishing a personal diary, which was intended only for the eyes of Lancaster’s family and lover, seems to be to pose the question of his innocence in the murder of the young American he found sharing a bed with Mrs. Miller on his return home a year previously. For, in spite of Carson’s historic defence, many people thought that Lancaster had shot the victim; in this pathetic diary there is not one reference to the case. This, Barker thinks, proves the innocence of Lancaster, who must have realised he would never be rescued and might have been expected to make some plea for mercy if he was a murderer—or did he still hope for rescue at the last possible moment and have the sense, even in death, to remain silent? As one cannot be tried twice for murder this thought is uncharitable to the memory of a great, if tragic, personality and it seems that Ralph Barker has cleared the name of Bill Lancaster in this astonishing story.
There is little of motoring in “Verdict On a Lost Flyer”. An open bull-nosed Morris-Cowley owned by an RAF friend of Lancaster’s, and in which “Chubbie” Miller lost her hat, gets a few lines, we learn that Lancaster, while still in the RAF, ran the Red Rose Garage in High Street, Wendover in 1923, traded in cheap used cars and ran a local ‘bus service—those were the days when any old Model-T Ford or a similar vehicle could be pressed into service as a country ‘bus and one wonders if anyone recalled what Lancaster used. The RAF looked with distaste on this additional employment, incidentally.
Later in the book the old black Lincoln used by the pair in America, up to the time of the murder charge, is referred to. It was certainly a vintage model and when “Chubbie” hit a Buick in it Lancaster said he was driving at the time and this lost him his licence. (This caused him to remark that “American justice is all wet”, a hasty and thoughtless comment which went against him during the subsequent murder trial, which just shows how careful we disgruntled motorists should be about expressing opinions!) That’s about all the book has on cars but the aeroplanes flown in America will interest aviation historians; they include the Alexander Bullet in which a borrowed 165 h.p. Wright Whirlwind engine was installed for “Chubbie” Miller’s attempted coast-to-coast flight which so nearly ended in disaster and the Ireland Neptune amphibian in which George Putnam, later to marry Amelia Earhart (so now we know why Putnam’s publish all those fine aeronautical history books!) was for a time interested, when Lancaster proposed to use it for a New York-Bermuda flight.
Whether you read this hook as an aviation enthusiast, because you enjoy murder cases, or because the subjects in general interest you, even the morals of those times, which the author describes as “covertly perhaps not much different from today . . . but vastly different overtly”, you will find it detailed, dramatic, difficult to put down and infinitely sad. The pictures are first-class and altogether it is a book you shouldn’t miss—one that a book-token could well be expended on. If you haven’t a book token I advise you to pay cash for it.—W.B.
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