L is for Bill Lancaster

This is my contribution to Round Twelve of ABC Wednesday and again I am focusing on people, some famous, some infamous and some half-forgotten.
Bill Lancaster and Kiki

Bill Lancaster and his wife Kiki

Pioneering aviator, Bill Lancaster, lived the sort of life that you might read about in the pages of Boy’s Own, Mills & Boon, True Crimes or even a Greek tragedy.

Born in Birmingham, England, in 1898, Lancaster emigrated to Australia in the summer of 1914 to live with his uncle and in 1916 he joined the Australian Cavalry, and later the Australian Flying Corps, serving in World War I.

Lancaster remained in England after the war, joining the Royal Air Force. Handsome and dashing, he was a champion amateur boxer and an accomplished horseman. But he also had a rebellious streak and angered his superiors when he married Annie Maud ‘Kiki’ Columb in 1919.

Officers were discouraged from marrying below the age of 25, to the extent that they were denied the usual married quarters and pay allowances and Lancaster was just 21 when he tied the knot.

Lancaster was demobilized in 1920 and briefly studied dentistry at the University of London, but he had the flying bug and in 1921 he rejoined the RAF, serving in India until early 1923 when he returned to England with his wife and children.

He transferred to the RAF Reserve in 1927, meaning that he was free to pursue his own career while still be technically available for duty should he be required. It was a time of air speed and endurance records and Lancaster decided he would make a name for himself by flying from England to Australia.

He chose to fly one of the new breed of British touring planes, the Avro Avian. The manufacturer agreed to provide a special long-range version at a reduced price and Shell offered him free fuel, but even so, Lancaster could not raise enough backing to make the flight until a chance meeting that was to change his whole life.

He was on the town in London when he was introduced to Jessie Miller, a petite Australian woman who was known to her friends as ‘Chubbie’. She had an ambition to be the first woman to make the long flight to Australia and persuaded Lancaster to take her along as a passenger in exchange for her covering half the expenses.

Lancaster and Chubbie in the Red Rose

Lancaster and Chubbie in the Red Rose

His wife Kiki agreed to the plan and waved them goodbye from London’s Croydon Airport in October 1927 for the arduous trip to Darwin in the Avian ‘Red Rose’.

Lancaster had no plans to set any speed records which was just as well as the 14,000 mile journey took five months to complete, dogged as they were by bad weather, mechanical problems and finally a crash landing on an island off Sumatra.

While they twiddled their thumbs waiting for the plane to be repaired, they were passed by Bert ‘Hustling’ Hinkler (the Australia’s Lindbergh) in another Avro Avian on his way to becoming the first to fly solo from England to Australia.

Still, the couple were lauded when they finally landed in Darwin. It was the longest flight ever undertaken by a woman and the two of them toured the country, lecturing and greeting the public at civic receptions. And after six months of shared adventure the inevitable happened – Lancaster and Chubbie fell in love.

Lancaster and ChubbieIn June 1928 the couple sailed to America to play themselves in a Hollywood movie, but the film was never made. Instead Lancaster found himself flying around the country promoting British aircraft engines.

He was joined by Kiki in an attempt to repair their damaged marriage, but this didn’t work out and she returned to England, refusing to give him a divorce.

Meanwhile Chubbie had got her own pilot’s licence and appeared in the 1929 Women’s Aerial Derby as the ‘Australian Aviatrix’. And in October 1930 she set transcontinental speed records in both directions.

In 1932 she decided to publish a book of her adventures and employed the young author, Hayden Clarke, as her ghost-writer. He came to live with the couple in their home in Miami.

It was the time of the Great Depression and Lancaster was struggling to find work, so he headed off to Mexico, leaving Chubbie and Clarke to collaborate on the book. It transpired that Clarke was quite a Lothario. Chubbie fell for his charms and when he asked her to marry him she agreed.

Lancaster was devastated and flew home to ask Chubbie to reconsider and the three of them were in the Miami house on the night of 20th April 1932 when Clarke was shot in the head.

Clarke was rushed to hospital, but died soon after. The police found two suicide notes and at first treated the case as such, but they began to suspect that they were forgeries and arrested Lancaster and charged him with murder.

Lancaster on trial for murder

Lancaster on trial for murder

The trial was a sensation and it was widely expected that Lancaster would face the electric chair as the case seemed watertight, but it didn’t work out that way. Women fainted as Clarke’s skull was examined in court by ballistics experts who concluded that suicide was the most likely cause of death.

It also came to light that Clarke had been mentally unbalanced, had one bigamous marriage behind him, was a drug addict and had previously spoken of committing suicide.

But it was Lancaster’s diaries that clinched his acquittal, even though they had actually been entered in evidence against him by the prosecution. In summing up, the judge said:

It has been my privilege to see into the depths of a man’s soul through his private diary, which was never intended for anyone’s eyes but his own. In all my experience, which has been broad, I have never met a more honorable man than Captain Lancaster.

Lancaster was found not guilty and he and Chubbie returned to England with little money and few friends. It was then that Lancaster settled on one last desperate attempt to resurrect his aviation career – the England to Cape Town speed record.

In the early 1930s this was the most challenging route for pioneering pilots. Amy Johnson Mollison had only recently taken the record from her husband Jim Mollison in a total elapsed time of four days, six hours and 54 minutes.

Lancaster and the Southern Cross Minor

Lancaster and the Southern Cross Minor

Lancaster persuaded his father to finance his attempt and found a suitable plane in Southern Cross Minor, the Avian Mk4 previously owned by the transpacific pilot Sir Charles Kingsford Smith.

But despite its pedigree and its suitability for long distance flight, the plane had a major flaw – its cruising speed was 10 mph slower than Amy Mollison’s De Havilland Puss Moth. To beat her record, Lancaster would have to spend more time in the air and less on the ground resting.

On 11th April 1933 he was waved off at Lympne Aerodrome by a tiny group made up of Chubbie, his parents and a lone reporter. His mother handed him some chicken sandwiches, a bar of chocolate and a flask of coffee which was all the supplies he carried, other than a two gallon drum of water.

In order to beat Amy Mollison’s record for the 6,000 mile journey, Lancaster would need to be in the air for 72 hours out of little more than one hundred and most of the time he had on the ground would be spent servicing and refueling his aircraft. This would have challenged the fittest man and he was far from that by this time.

Lancaster's Last Flight

Lancaster’s Last Flight

Ill winds forced an unscheduled landing in Barcelona and there were further delays at Oran in North Africa and as he got ready to leave he was already six and a half hours off the pace. French officials tried to dissuade him from continuing and when he refused, they asked Lancaster for a $2,000 deposit to defray search costs should he go missing in the Sahara.

Lancaster exploded, saying: ‘I don’t have it. I’ll take my chances and I don’t expect you to look for me.’

There followed the hazardous night crossing of the Atlas Mountains with Lancaster checking his compass bearings by flashlight. He picked up the trans-Sahara track in the morning that should have guided him to his next stop at Reggan, but instead he landed 100 miles short at Adrar. After refueling  he decided to bypass Reggan and complete the entire Sahara crossing in one go.

The next four hours should have seen an end to his attempt. Tired and confused he followed the wrong track and landed 110 miles east of Reggan. Realising his error, he took off again for Reggan only to lose his bearings again and ending up back at Adrar.

Lancaster was now so far off the pace that he should have thrown in the towel, but even though the officials tried to get him to rest he took off for the last time at 6:30 pm on 12th April 1933. Witnesses report that he executed an erratic take off and that he headed in the wrong direction for a few minutes before turning south.

Lancaster's Logbook

A section of Lancaster’s logbook

What happened next was unknown for another 29 years when Lancaster’s body and the wreckage of his plane were stumbled upon in 1962. Beside his mummified remains was his logbook to complete his story.

Lancaster had lost sight of the road he meant to follow soon after take-off, but he guessed that if he kept to an accurate compass heading then he shouldn’t stray too far from the road that would lead him to Gao. But it wasn’t to be.

The engine of his plane began to miss badly and he rapidly lost height. The first entry in Lancaster’s logbook written the following day tells of his ordeal:

I have just escaped a most unpleasant death…. It was pitch dark, no moon being up (about 8:15 p.m.). I tried to feel her down but crashed heavily and the machine turned over. When I came to I was suspended upside down in the cockpit.

I do not know how long I had been out. There was a horrible atmosphere in my tiny prison with petrol fumes. By worming my way around and scraping sand away with my nails, eventually I corkscrewed my way out into the open.

My eyes were full of blood which had congealed, but eventually I managed to get them open.

The plane was a complete wreck and it was a wonder that it hadn’t caught fire. Lancaster had deep cuts to his nose and head and he was weak from loss of blood. He still had his flask of coffee, chocolate and now stale chicken sandwiches, but most importantly he had his two gallon drum of water.

The plane wreckage

The plane wreckage

The decision he had to make was whether to stay put or attempt to walk to safety, but he and Chubbie had talked about this possibility. The rule for downed pilots was to stay with the wreckage since it would be more easily spotted by searchers, so Lancaster settled in the shade of the wing.

What he didn’t know was that the search was concentrated at the southern end of his route and that only a car was sent out to look for him in the north and he was too far away from the road to be spotted.

Lancaster improvised flares using fabric from the plane and petrol, but the days dragged on without him being found. It seems he died on 20th April 1933, one year to the day after that night in Miami when Hayden Clarke killed himself. Among the last things he wrote were these words:

The chin is right up to the last I hope. Am now tying this log book up in fabric…. No one to blame, the engine missed, I landed upside-down in pitch dark and there you are…. Goodbye, Father old man. Write Jacki (his brother). And goodbye my darlings. Bill.

Lancaster’s body was buried in Reggan by the French air force and as for Chubbie, she had married a British pilot in 1936. As the beneficiary of his will, she was given Lancaster’s logbook and other documents recovered from the crashed plane which she allowed to be published, including this article by Terry Gwynn-Jones and originally published in the January 2000 issue of Aviation History magazine.

Meanwhile Andrew Lancaster, is producing a film of his great-uncle’s life and is looking to include historic newsreel film by raising the necessary funding on Pozible. Below is a trailer for the project.

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5 comments… Add yours
  • Roger Green 3rd April 2013

    you always find these fascinating people, about 80% I had never heard of!
    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

  • bettyl 3rd April 2013

    That was quite a story!

  • Leslie 3rd April 2013

    Wow! That would make a great movie – they say truth is stranger than fiction anyway! Great post today,

    abcw team

  • Marie-AZ 3rd April 2013

    Fascinating bio! I had never heard of he or his wife, and it was fun to read about their place in history!

  • Katherine 6th April 2013

    Yes, ditto Marie-Az’s comment. Really interesting. I kept thinking of ‘The English Patient’, but that movie is no-where near as exciting! Thank for sharing another fascinating person’s life.


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