The tale of two intrepid aviators who got caught in a sordid scandal.
On Aug. 2, 1932, William Lancaster, a renowned British pilot, stood trial for murder. Watching nervously among hundreds of spectators was Australian Jessie Keith-Miller, Lancaster’s former co-pilot and lover. How the pair ended up in a Miami courtroom is the subject of Mead’s (English/Baruch Coll.; Angelic Music: The Story of Benjamin Franklin’s Glass Armonica, 2016, etc.) colorful, fast-paced narrative, a tale of ambition, betrayal, lust, and devotion. The story begins in 1927, when Lancaster and Keith-Miller took off from London, aiming to make a record-breaking flight to Australia, the first in a light plane. The two were basically strangers, but they bonded over their desire for adventure, fame, and escape from unhappy marriages. Lancaster had been a Royal Air Force pilot, but Keith-Miller learned to fly shortly before the flight. After two hours of instruction, she was already flying solo. Mead underscores the sexism that pervaded aeronautics in the 1920s: Keith-Miller and her new friend Amelia Earhart decried the “public prejudice against women aviators.” Flying was undeniably risky. Planes were small, vulnerable to “slashing rain and battering wind,” sleet, and fog; engines failed, fuel leaked, parts broke midflight, and crashes occurred with frightening frequency. When Lancaster and Keith-Miller landed in Australia, they instantly became “the world’s thrilling new heroes.” They also became lovers. In the months following their success, they looked forward to careers in aviation—until 1929, when a severe economic downturn dried up money for test flights and competitions. The author recounts the couple’s financial troubles, which led Keith-Miller to take up a publisher’s suggestion that she write her autobiography. She teamed with a ghostwriter, and while Lancaster was away pursuing a dicey moneymaking scheme, she fell in love with him. Lancaster was devastated, yet when he returned to Keith-Miller, he seemed resigned to their decision to marry. Then a shot was fired, and Miller and Lancaster became international news.
A brisk, entertaining history of daring and passion.