Corey Mead's The Lost Pilots is the saga of two star crossed pilots who soar to the greatest heights of fame, tailspin into scandal and crime, and go the ultimate lengths for a chance at redemption...
During the height of the roaring twenties, Jessie Miller longs for adventure. Fleeing a passionless marriage in the backwaters of Australia, twenty-three-year-old Jessie arrives in London and promptly falls in with the Bright Young Things, those gin-soaked boho-chic intellectuals draped in suits, flapper dresses, and pearls. At a party Jessie meets Captain William Lancaster, married himself and fresh from the Royal Air Force, with a scheme in his head to become as famous as Charles Lindbergh, who has just crossed the Atlantic. Lancaster will do Lindy one better: fly from London to Melbourne, and in Jessie Miller he’s found the perfect co-pilot.
Within months the two embark on a half-year journey across the globe, hopping from one colonial outpost to the next. But like world records, marriage vows can be broken, and upon their landing in Melbourne Jessie and William are not only international celebrities, but also deeply inlove.
Yet the crash of 1929 catches up to even the fastest aviator, and the couple finds themselves in dire straits at their rented house on the outskirts of Miami – the bright glare of the limelight fading quickly.To make ends meet Jessie agrees to write a memoir, and picks the dashing Haden Clarke to be her ghostwriter. It’s not long before this toxic mix of bootleg booze and a handsome interloper leads to a shocking crime, a trial that rivets and scandalizes the world, and a reckless act of abandon to win back former glory.
The Lost Pilots is an extraordinary true story, brought to vivid life by Corey Mead. Based on years of research, and full of adventure, forbidden passion, crime, scandal and tragedy, it is a masterwork of narrative nonfiction that firmly restores one of aviation’s leading female pioneers to her rightful place in history.
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BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS
On a muggy June night in 1927, a whirl of music, laughter, and conversation spilled from the open windows of an artist's Baker Street studio in London. Paintings crowded the studio's walls, but actual furniture was sparse, with only a low sofa, a few scattered cushions, and a single chair in which to sit. The party guests that night didn't care; as they weaved throughout the crowded, cigarette-smoke-filled room, they felt an immutable kinship with the chaos and promise of the blossoming Jazz Age. They were young women in pearls and fashionable dresses, and young men in suits, their jackets abandoned in the heat, eagerly clutching sweating tumblers of gin and tonic. They were the Bright Young Things of London, a pleasure-seeking assortment of wealthy socialites, bohemian artists, and middle-class rule-breakers, who gloried in their own irresponsibility and blissfully debauched fun. But beneath the bright, shiny facade, though they were not eager to admit it, the traumatic shadow of World War I lingered always over their frivolity, adding to it an air of desperation, a last-ditch alcohol-soaked escape from the black dog that trailed in their paths, no matter how privileged their social status and connections.
One of the party guests, a dark-haired, full-lipped twenty-five-year-old Australian woman with sparkling eyes who shared a one-room apartment downstairs, stood entranced at the scene before her, thrilled by the vitality of her newly adopted city. Jessie Keith-Miller — jokingly called "Chubbie" by her friends, a childhood nickname that had evolved into a winking reference to her slender five-foot-one frame — had arrived in London only weeks before, leaving behind Australia and a husband to whom she was unhappily married. This was her first London party, and it was filled with the kinds of glamorous, intriguing artists and bohemians who she had dreamed would fill her new life.
With the party in full swing, Jessie followed the party's host, George, around the room. He introduced her to a smattering of acquaintances, before stopping in front of a tall, lean, well-dressed man with a high forehead, thinning brown hair, and a crinkly smile. "This is Flying Captain Bill Lancaster," George told Jessie. "He's flying to Australia. That should give you something in common — you ought to get together."
Lancaster radiated geniality and good cheer, and he was in a chatty mood. In no time at all the handsome pilot was telling Jessie about his plans for an upcoming solo flight to Australia, a feat that had never been attempted with the type of "light" airplane he intended to fly, one that would weigh significantly less than the heavier variety of plane that previous fliers had employed. (In aviation, the terms "heavy" and "light" refer simply to an aircraft's takeoff weight.) Though the idea had been germinating for some time, Lancaster's imagination had been newly fired by an event that had electrified the world just one month earlier.
On May 20, 1927, at Roosevelt Field on Long Island, Charles Lindbergh, an unknown U.S. Air Mail pilot, had climbed into his self-designed lightweight aircraft, the Spirit of St. Louis, to begin the first solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic. Thirty-three hours later, an exhausted Lindbergh touched down at Le Bourget Airport in Paris before an ecstatic crowd of more than a hundred thousand spectators. In that instant, Lindbergh's life, and the world of aviation, were forever changed.
Lindbergh became the most famous man of his day, while aviators themselves became the age's new idols. In the words of aviatrix Elinor Smith Sullivan, at that time the youngest U.S.-government-licensed pilot on record, "[Before Lindbergh's flight] people seemed to think we [aviators] were from outer space or something. But after Charles Lindbergh's flight, we could do no wrong. It's hard to describe the impact Lindbergh had on people. Even the first walk on the moon doesn't come close. The twenties was such an innocent time, and people were still so religious — I think they felt like this man was sent by God to do this." Speaking the month after Lindbergh's flight, former secretary of state Charles Evans Hughes captured the common mood: "Colonel Lindbergh has displaced everything. ... He fills all our thought. He has displaced politics. ... [H]e has lifted us into the upper air that is his home."
As Lindbergh biographer Thomas Kessner writes, "It is impossible today to comprehend the scale of his popularity, the void he filled in a bloody era searching for fresh heroes and new departures. War on a scale no one had ever imagined had drained the world of optimism. And in an age desperately searching for a moral equivalent of war, he demonstrated transcendence without menace." The groundbreaking employment of aircraft in World War I — the first major conflict to feature such large-scale use of flying machines — had proven aviation's effectiveness as a tool of death and destruction, but Lindbergh recovered its essential thrill. After his record-setting flight, applications in the United States for pilot's licenses soared, the numbers tripling in the remaining months of 1927 alone. The number of licensed aircraft almost immediately quadrupled, as a long-skeptical public embraced air travel with the fervor of the newly converted.
Though he didn't mention it to Jessie Keith-Miller at the Baker Street party, Bill Lancaster had witnessed World War I's atrocities firsthand, from the gory battlefield trenches, and his natural recklessness, combined with his inborn optimism, made him a perfect example of the 1920s breed of flier. With Lindbergh as his model, Lancaster seemed to take it as a given that the flight from England to Australia he envisioned would bring him worldwide fame.
Lancaster's knowledge of Australia was limited, however, and so, as he chatted with Jessie, he peppered her with questions about her country's airfields, local routes, and weather. Twelve months earlier Lancaster had left his job as a Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot, and now, at age twenty-nine, with flying jobs growing scarce and a wife and two children to support, he was anxious to make a name for himself. Though Jessie could answer few of his questions, and though she could barely hear him above the noise of the party, Lancaster was positive she could help him simply by virtue of her being Australian. No doubt her impish buoyancy and wide, winning smile added to her considerable appeal. "Come and have tea with me tomorrow at the Authors' Club at Whitehall," he urged her. "I'll show you the plans I've made so far."
* * *
The party's freely flowing alcohol may have enhanced the moment, but Lancaster's invitation was a perfect match for Jessie's own impulsiveness. It was a far cry from the circumscribed nature of her upbringing in a family marked by religious conservatism and Victorian sternness. Her father, Charles Beveridge, was a clergyman's son; her mother, Ethelwyn, a clergyman's daughter; her uncle ran a parish in Melbourne.
She was born Jessie Maude Beveridge on September 13, 1901, in the tiny western Australia settlement of Southern Cross, little more than a decade after the town's founding by gold prospectors. Her father had arrived in town four years earlier to manage the local branch of the Commercial Bank, setting up residence in a small apartment above the bank. The year after Jessie another daughter, Eleanor, was born, but, tragically, she died an infant.
In 1905 the Beveridge family moved to Perth, where Jessie's mother gave birth to a son named Thomas. Here, in the capital city, Jessie and Thomas formed an indissoluble bond, one that grew only more robust with each passing year. When Jessie was seven, the Commercial Bank relocated her father to a branch in the mining town of Broken Hill, halfway across the country, where the family finally bought their own house. Jessie and Thomas attended Convent High School, where Jessie excelled in singing, piano, and music theory. By all accounts she could have had a fine career as a professional musician if she had so chosen.
In 1916 the bank transferred Charles to a new branch in the agricultural town of Timaru, New Zealand. Jessie attended the elite Craighead School, a newly founded private institution dedicated to producing "refined" and "cultured" young women. At Craighead, Jessie was a socially popular star athlete, but just three years later the family moved once again, this time to Melbourne, where Charles worked in the bank's main office. By this point Jessie was fed up with relocating — each time the family moved, she had to go through the lengthy and painful process of reestablishing herself and gaining new friends. She also felt oppressed by her family's staunchly religious lifestyle, which entailed endless visits to church and nonstop Bible reading. For an energetic, audacious spirit like hers, the atmosphere was insufferably claustrophobic. Jessie was keen for an escape.
At the age of seventeen Jessie met a Weekly Times journalist named Keith Miller, who was five years older. Though Miller's personality was far more sober than hers, Jessie, desperate to leave her family, unhesitatingly said yes when Miller proposed to her the following year. The two were married in a Melbourne suburb on December 3, 1919. It soon became apparent, however, that the young couple had little in common. "We were quite maladjusted," Jessie recalled later in life. "It was like two babies getting married. Our characters were poles apart." Jessie was headstrong and temperamental, whereas Keith was calm and steady. The quickly apparent gulf between their personalities was exacerbated by an inability to have children: the couple lost one baby born twelve weeks early, and two subsequent miscarriages convinced doctors that Jessie wasn't fit to bear a child.
Eventually the couple settled into a rhythm as friends, but they both accepted that they were no longer in love. Keith wanted a traditional wife who would stay at home, whereas Jessie wanted to travel the world and have "the right to live my own life." She was still itching to break the bonds of her sheltered existence.
Not long after, Jessie's father passed away from throat cancer at the relatively young age of fifty-seven. Two years later, her beloved brother, Thomas, who had become a midshipman in the navy, died suddenly of cerebral meningitis at age twenty-one. Jessie, caught utterly off guard, was devastated. As children, she and Tommy had spent hours lying on the rug in front of the fireplace, concocting plans to travel the world in search of adventure. He had been her closest confidant, her most intimate sounding board, the person who had kept her sane in the midst of her family's upheavals and cloyingly pious beliefs. Now her world seemed permanently scarred by misfortune: Tommy and her father were dead, her sister, Eleanor, had died an infant, and Jessie was stuck in a passionless marriage. Emotionally, she was hollowed-out — if not suicidal, then certainly deeply depressed. She felt trapped at the bottom of the world, doomed to wither, barren and alone, beneath the unforgiving Australian sun.
In the throes of her depression, Jessie decided her only option was to find something worth living for — even if she had no idea what that might be. For months she cast around fruitlessly for ideas, until finally a workable plan presented itself. Her father's family lived in England; at the urging of her aunt, she would go and visit them in an attempt to escape her gloom. Pleading with Keith that the trip was essential to her mental health, Jessie found employment as a door-to-door carpet sweeper saleswoman in order to save up funds for her trip. She even invited Keith to accompany her to England, but he demurred, possibly because his journalism career was well established in Australia. The two may have made a poor married couple, but they were on friendly-enough terms, and Keith agreed to Jessie's plan: she would live in England for six months while he provided her with a three-pound weekly allowance. He asked only that she earn enough money to pay for her return voyage home.
The driven, headstrong Jessie made a powerful saleswoman. As one of her customers later recalled, Jessie had knocked on the door of his Melbourne apartment sporting an ear-to-ear grin. When he opened up, Jessie had "thrust a neat, suede-shoed foot between the door and the sash, and refused to remove it until I had agreed to buy a newfangled carpet sweeper that I did not want." When the customer later spotted Jessie at a club, he asked a female friend who she was. With a knowing smile, the woman replied that Jessie was "a hurricane saleswoman."
As soon as she had saved up enough money, Jessie, with her devoted friend Margaret Starr in tow, purchased a third-class ticket for the voyage to England. She and Margaret planned to stay in London for six months. When they arrived in the city, in the spring of 1927, they rented a flat and began insinuating themselves into the local community of Australian expats. The freedom and stimulation Jessie had craved for so long were finally hers for the taking.
Now, at the Baker Street party, chatting with Bill Lancaster about his plans to fly to Australia, Jessie had a sudden vision of how she might further change her life.CHAPTER 2
A NIMBLE LIFTOFF
History surrounded Bill Lancaster and Jessie Keith-Miller as they sat within the elegant stone walls of the Authors' Club at Whitehall Place, a stone's throw from both the Thames River and Trafalgar Square. This was where Oscar Wilde had furiously condemned the censorship of his controversial play Salome; where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had for years reigned undefeated as billiards champion; where guest speakers like Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, and Emile Zola had been honored; where Ford Madox Ford had gotten rip-roaring drunk on the night he returned from combat in France. In later years the building would serve as MI6's secret headquarters, but for now its glittering chandeliers and elaborately tiled floors bespoke a snobbish yet accessible gentility.
Jessie had hardly taken her seat before Lancaster launched into an animated spiel about his upcoming flight. The England-to-Australia route had been conquered twice before, but by so-called heavy airplanes. Lancaster intended to make his mark by flying the route in a light airplane — specifically, the eighty-five-horsepower ADC Cirrus engine-powered Avro Avian, designed and built only a few months earlier. The Avro Avian was set to transform modern light flying, Lancaster claimed, with its eighty-mile-an-hour cruising speed and nine-hundred-mile range.
Jessie may have been an amateur when it came to aviation, but she exhibited a no-nonsense approach that cut through any bravado in Lancaster's presentation. She pressed him for details: Could Lancaster actually get an Avro Avian?
Here Lancaster's confident manner began to falter. His father might help him, Lancaster said, but under Jessie's continued questioning he admitted that his father had thus far refused to finance the trip. From what Jessie could garner, the only concrete elements of Lancaster's plan were that he knew which airplane he preferred and which route he planned to take. But these meant nothing without the financial means to make them happen. Jessie pressed him further. Aside from the plane, how would fuel be paid for? What about food and equipment, not to mention visas, licenses, landing fees, service charges, and maps?
Jessie may have been sensible and strong-minded, but she was also fun-loving and lively. Despite Lancaster's lack of preparation, Jessie found him an appealing character, and not just because of his charm and looks. He was clearly an experienced pilot, and his eagerness for the journey was addictive in its way. Like her, he seemed ready for any adventure, keen to immerse himself in new worlds, yearning for escape from the constraining dailiness of his life. Most importantly, Lancaster's money problems aligned perfectly with the idea that had spontaneously flowered in Jessie's mind at the party the night before. After a few more questions, she came to the point.
"You said the plane was a two-seater?" she asked.
"Yes," he replied.
"If I can raise the money, say fifty percent of the total outlay, can I come with you?"
A look of astonishment crossed Lancaster's face, and he briefly scrambled for words. Whatever assistance he may have wanted from Jessie, this was clearly not it. Once Lancaster gathered his thoughts, he told Jessie that it would be impossible for her to join him on his journey. "In the first place there's the extra weight," he protested. "And you can't imagine what the flight would be like — you'd have to rough it everywhere. Besides, it's dangerous. I'm confident for myself but I couldn't take on the responsibility of a woman passenger."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Lost Pilots"
Copyright © 2018 Corey Mead.
Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
PROLOGUE: A TIME LIKE THIS,
PART I: RED ROSE,
1 BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS,
2 A NIMBLE LIFTOFF,
3 SINGLE-MINDED ABANDON,
PART II: A NEW WORLD,
5 GRAND WELCOMES,
6 FLYING SOLO,
7 A CHANGE IN FORTUNE,
8 TO MIAMI,
9 FUTURE UNKNOWN,
10 MENTAL AGONY,
11 EAGER, DRUNKEN LOVE,
12 THE TORTURES OF THE DAMNED,
13 A MAN OF MANY SECRETS,
14 A TERRIBLE THING,
16 THE SCARLET WOMAN,
PART III: FLIGHT TO NOWHERE,
17 THOSE DIM DAYS OF THE PAST THAT ARE DEAD,
18 A TISSUE OF LIES,
19 AMERICAN JUSTICE IS ALL WET,
20 THE MAN FROM AUBURN,
21 THE VERDICT,
22 A TRAGIC FIGURE,
23 THIS PERIOD OF AGONY,
EPILOGUE: THE PAST REACHES OUT,
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS AND SOURCES,
ALSO BY COREY MEAD,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,