The Final Verdict
by Ralph Barker
First published in 1969, re-released by Pen & Sword Aviation in 2015.
If you’re ever looking for a story to turn into an aviation blockbuster, you could do a lot worse than the life of Bill Lancaster. His memory is a ready-made movie script, complete with dangerous flights and nail-biting escapes, glowing public adulation and depression-era destitution; several love triangles, a salacious murder trial; and a courageous but tragically inevitable end.
Not only does Bill Lancaster’s story have it all – it’s all true.
This book begins at the bitter end, with the commander of a French desert reconnaissance patrol noticing an ‘anomaly’ on the razor-straight Tanezrouft horizon of southern Algeria. The year is 1962.
The Tanezrouft Desert is a particularly hostile, trackless, and remote part of the central Sahara.
In this ‘desert within a desert’ any feature is worth investigating. And so, twenty-nine years after he disappeared into a stormy night and away from public scrutiny, Bill Lancaster’s wrecked plane, carefully wrapped logbook and sun-scorched body were found.
The Bill Lancaster story
Bill Lancaster – The Final Verdict was originally published in 1969. But a lot has happened since then and Pen & Sword Aviation has made an excellent decision in re-releasing the entire original text with a postscript by the author’s daughter, Sarah Duncanson, to bring the story right up-to-date.
By including URLs for reputable websites and the details of several movies, Duncanson gives a modern, multi-media aspect to her father’s book, and opens several avenues for the curious reader to continue exploring.
Her addendum also introduces the people and events that have woven themselves into the Lancaster narrative since 1969 – including the difficult 1975 expedition to recover the aircraft, plus the subsequent loss of the exact crash location, of Lancaster’s remains, and of the amazing diary the aviator kept while waiting to be rescued.
It seems adventure and mystery will always be a part of Bill Lancaster’s story.
And alongside a ripping yarn of aviation adventure and criminal misadventure, this book satisfies another of my passions by including maps.
Too often I find these missing from stories that, lets face it, are largely about navigation. Maps are a brilliant graphical explanation of place, space and distance. Seeing them included along with the text of Bill Lancaster – The Final Verdict had me on-side right from the start.
Act One: Pioneer aviator
Bill Lancaster was born on St.Valentine’s Day 1898, near Birmingham, England. Like many men of his generation he gained entry to aviation during World War One. He re-enlisted for a further five years after the war and earned himself a reputation as only a competent pilot, but one with no sense of fear. That cool head would serve him well in the future.
By 1927, after a year of studying Dentistry, he was anxious to get back into the cockpit of a plane – and had come up with the idea of being the first to fly a light plane the 19,000 kilometres from England to Australia.
It was at this point that he met Jessie “Chubbie” Miller, an energetic young Australian woman who would bring essential impetus, valuable company and much of the publicity that would make the flight a success. Both Lancaster and Miller were married, but living separately from their spouses.
They duly set off with the best intentions, in an Avro Avian, on October 14th, 1927. But with long hours in the cockpit, some moments of shared terror, and considerable delays on the ground, the young adventurers would fall in love well before they reached Australia.
In the end, Bert Hinkler, in another Avian, beat them to Darwin and the crown of first light aircraft to make the flight. But the fact that Miller was a woman gave Lancaster’s effort huge public appeal and the pair enjoyed a degree of celebrity and success in Australia. Naturally, their blossoming affair was kept carefully hidden.
They then moved to the United States to pursue flying opportunities there. Chubbie Miller wasn’t a pilot before the England-Australia flight, but she had learned to fly through the hands-on experience. In fact, the public so completely accepted her as an aviatrix that she now had to earn her actual license in secret.
The pair would enjoy considerably success in America during the later Roaring Twenties. Miller even competed in the very first ‘Powder-puff Derby’ in August 1929, finishing third in her class ahead of further successes at that year’s National Air Races in Cleveland.
As a result, the first half of Bill Lancaster – The Final Verdict is a non-stop aviation adventure, among the most enjoyable and incessant that I’ve enjoyed. In fact, I started to wonder if the breakneck pace was ever going to let me catch my breath.
However the Great Depression hit American aviation hard – taking Lancaster and Miller down with it. They struggled to connect their dwindling flying engagements and stretch their dwindling cash reserves, eagerly grasping at any opportunity which came their way.
Act Two: The fight of his life
And so they were living in a rented Miami house (rent largely unpaid) at the start of 1932 when things seemed to turn a corner. Firstly, they found a young man to ghost-write Chubbie’s life story, so that they could cash in on an enduring public fascination with female flyers. Secondly, Bill was offered a position with an airline that was being formed in Miami, to operate in Northern Mexico.
But nothing went to plan. During BIll’s long absence, Chubbie fell in love with her ghost writer, Haden Clarke. Meanwhile, the startup airline turned out to be a front for a fledgling drug and people smuggling operation – something Lancaster refused to be part of.
Withdrawing himself and his airplane, he flew back to Miami. On the way, he received letters from both Chubbie and Clarke declaring their love. He stayed in the house on the night he returned, seemingly reconciled, and talking with Clarke for several hours. Then, about 3am, there was a muffled gunshot and Haden Clarke was found dying from a single bullet, fired into his temple from Lancaster’s .38.
This begins the most pivotal period of Bill Lancaster’s life, and the second act, if you will, of the book. Not surprisingly, Lancaster was put on trial for first degree murder, despite claiming that Clarke had committed suicide.
I found it somewhat curious that author Ralph Barker presented the events of that night pretty much exactly as Lancaster’s defence would later lay them out. I’d have thought this was a prime opportunity to give the narrative more mystery, while being less prejudicial. Perhaps it comes from a British bias, or out of deference to the eventual findings of the jury. Maybe it was more about giving civil (and legal) respect to Chubbie and Lancaster’s family, most of whom were still living when the book first appeared. But I can’t help wondering if an American author would have handled the events of that night in same way. Wikipedia’s brief sketch of the events, for example, is far less presumptive.
Regardless of that small point, however, what follows is easily the most fascinating account of a jury trial that I’ve ever read.
I’m certainly no fan of crime or courtroom dramas – I like planes a lot more. But Barker’s exhaustive research and insightful commentary is truly fascinating.
Along with his detailed narrative of the alleged crime and subsequent legal process, we’re given privileged access to the methods and motives of both the prosecution and defence. Barker doesn’t just cover what was said, he also explains why – including what each side hoped to achieve with their questions, when they brought different elements of the case into play, and even the evidence and witnesses they preferred to ignore.
It’s an amazing study that I just couldn’t put it down, crawling off to bed at 3 in the morning two nights in a row. I’ve never seen a trial covered this well, in any medium.
So, did he do it? Well, you’ll have to make up your own mind.
Just be prepared to change your decision more than once. I did.
Act Three: Overture
The third part of the Bill Lancaster story is his final flight – an attempt on the London To Cape record which he began in another Avro Avian, in April 1933. HIs aircraft, registered G-ABLK and named Southern Cross Minor, had previously belonged to the famous Australian aviator Charles Kingsford-Smith.
This flight was Lancaster’s attempt to re-establish himself in aviation after the public embarrassment of his murder trial the previous year. However he was exhausted and arguably ill-prepared; in any case, he was well behind the required pace when he left the French outpost of Reggan in Southern Algeria, in bad weather, on the night of April 12th, 1933.
He never arrived at his next fuel stop, Gao on the NIger. Engine failure forced hm to crash land on the trackless Tanezrouft plain of the Sahara, where he escaped the overturned Southern Cross Minor with several cuts to his face.
Lancaster would remain by his crashed plane, waiting to be rescued, for eight scorching days. As he sat and eked out his water supply, he kept a diary full of reflection and hope in the spare pages of his log book. I’m delighted to say this unique journal is published in full in the book.
There’s no doubt the shooting of Haden Clarke cast a pall over Bill Lancaster’s life, and that makes this a book of two halves – first a tearing aviation adventure, then a high stakes courtroom drama balanced more on reasonable doubt than compelling evidence.
But the transition from one part to the other is natural and logical. It flows, just as Lancaster’s life must have done, from the freedom of flying into the mire of being on trial for Murder One. The contrast couldn’t be more stark. And in a broader sense, it’s a perfect allegory for American aviation’s transition from the Roaring Twenties to the stagnation of the early Thirties.
Ultimately, the adventure establishes his character, while the trial establishes the facts. But those haunting final pages simply show how Lancaster tried to get his life back – and lost it all.
They are the incredibly moving account of a man who is face-to-face with himself, his life, and his impending death.
The picture is pathetic but incredibly courageous, and it will stay with me for a long, long time.
The 1962 French Army patrol and the wreckage of Southern Cross Minor. Lancaster’s mummified remains lie partly buried in the foreground. (© Soldat Humbert)
About This Review
I wrote this review at the invitation of the publisher, Pen & Sword Aviation. If you’ve heard of them, you’ll know they’re one of the UK’s leading military and aviation publishers, so I was more than happy to agree.
Pen & Sword were kind enough to provide a review copy of the book, but no money has changed hands and the views I’ve expressed are entirely my own.