The pilot’s skeletal body lay on its left side, partially covered by a thin layer of sand.
Mummified by the decades, the parts of his skin that had been exposed to the dry Sahara air were crinkled like stiff, translucent paper; his right arm was bent, its fingers grasping upward towards the throat, in a dying gesture.
A still-visible scar, caused by the plane crash, stretched above his right eyebrow.
Tattered but identifiable clothing hung in strips off his body.
On his wrecked biplane’s wing, jutting diagonally above him, the pilot had tied his few belongings, including a passport and a large waterproof envelope that held his aircraft logbook.
The logbook would reveal that the body and the aircraft had lain untouched in the desert sand for almost three full decades. Now my water will give out today, one of the final entries read. It is then just a matter of a few hours and please God a quick end.
The date was February 12, 1962. The pilot’s body and single-engine biplane had been found by a French military platoon as they conducted a routine reconnaissance in the heart of the Sahara, the brutal Tanezrouft region known by local nomadic tribes as the Land of Thirst.
Two days earlier, the platoon had left the trans-Saharan motorway to plunge onto the desiccate Tanezrouft plains. Here, in this ‘desert within a desert’, there were no plants and animals, not a speck of water, nothing to enliven a region so desolate that even the desert’s tribes shunned it.
Though the French soldiers did not know it at first, the logbook contained the answer to a mystery.
The scene is London, 1927. At a Baker Street party, a young Australian woman, Jessie Keith-Miller, was introduced to Captain Bill Lancaster, a Royal Air Force veteran.
Jessie had just arrived in the city, seeking adventure and excitement, while her journalist husband, with whom she had an unhappy marriage, stayed at home in Australia.
Bill had recently left the RAF and was seeking fame and fortune as he had a wife and children to provide for at home.
Inspired by Charles Lindbergh’s remarkable recent solo flight to Paris, Bill wanted to set his own record flying from England to Australia in a new light airplane called an Avro Avian.
Over drinks at the party, Bill told Jessie of his plan – and as she talked of her own dreams of adventure, she told him she wanted to join his.
Jessie’s charm and persuasiveness, as well as her ability to raise the money and materials needed to actually make the flight, soon convinced a sceptical Bill to take her on.
It was an astonishing plan that captivated the nation’s imagination and on October 14th, 1927, Bill and Jessie, with a farewell from Bill’s wife, took off from London’s Croydon Airport in their plane The Red Rose.
Despite having no experience, Jessie quickly became a highly skilled pilot in her own right, taking over for Bill for long stretches of the journey.
The 14,000-mile journey soon turned into an unremitting slog of horrible weather, mechanical malfunctions, illness, and near-death crashes.
But the intensity and danger of their experiences bonded the pair tightly together, and six weeks into their journey, after yet another close brush with death, Bill and Jessie collapsed into each other’s arms. Perhaps inevitably, they had fallen in love.
The trip took six months, and when Bill and Jessie finally arrived in Australia after setting a new world record for distance flown in a light airplane, they were greeted by adoring crowds.
Jessie’s milestone achievements were even more remarkable the longest flight ever made by a woman, the first woman to cross the equator in the air, and the first woman to fly more than 8,000 miles in the air.
By way of comparison, three months later Amelia Earhart became famous simply by flying the Atlantic as a passenger, a feat not to be compared with Jessie’s.
However their love for each other remained a secret and in the public eye they remained loving spouses to their partners back home.
To capitalise on their newfound celebrity, Bill and Jessie sailed to Hollywood in June 1928 to star in a movie. But the Depression hit, the financing failed and they relocated to New York.
In 1929 Jessie became the third woman to earn a pilot’s license in New York, and one of just thirty-four licensed female pilots in the United States at the time.
That same year, at the nation’s first Women’s Air Derby, Jessie, along with Earhart, became one of the founding members of the Ninety-Nines, an organisation dedicated to advancing women’s roles in aviation.
In 1930 Jessie set a dual speed record for coast-to-coast flying in America.
Yet life was tough despite their achievements and they ended up in Miami, where they decided their best shot at money was for Jessie to write her autobiography.
A female pilot in those days was still a relative novelty, and Amelia Earhart had achieved great success with her own book.
To ghostwrite the book, Jessie and Bill recruited a handsome young Miami writer named Haden Clarke, who pledged he would keep watch over Jessie while Bill headed out west to pursue a potential moneymaking venture.
The deal turned out to be two con artists who wanted him to smuggle drugs and illegal aliens from Mexico to California. He refused.
Unlike Bill, Jessie had divorced, but she had grown weary of playing the hidden lover, of living a life in secret.
Bill’s business trip took six long weeks and while he was gone Jessie and Haden Clarke grew close and soon fell in love.
They decided to get married once Bill returned from his trip.
But what Jessie didn’t realise was she had fallen in love with a fake Clarke had spun her an elaborate web of lies, falsifying everything from his age to his writerly background to his marriage status – he had two wives already. Nor did he tell her that he had syphilis.
When Bill returned he was devastated to find out about the couple’s love affair but pledged to support them if only they would wait a month before tying the knot.
Then one evening, as Jessie was lying in bed reading, she heard Bill and Clarke in the other room talking and laughing.
The next thing she said she remembered was being woken from a deep sleep by pounding on her door and an ashen-faced Bill who told her Come quick! Haden has shot himself.
Investigators soon spotted it was no simple suicide. Bill confessed he wrote the two suicide notes found with Clarke himself and was arrested for murder.
The story of the the sordid love triangle that apparently turned deadly fascinated the public.
Jessie, however, remained Bill’s steadfast supporter and closest friend, and declared to anyone who would listen that she believed his innocence.
And with the focus on the story it emerged just how Haden Clarke had deceived her.
Bill’s trial, in August 1932, was a worldwide sensation, with the Miami Herald declaring it one of the most sensational hearings in the history of Florida.
It had all the essential elements celebrity, love, jealousy, scandal, murder.
Almost everybody assumed Bill was guilty, though many also felt that Clarke deserved what he got.
Then in a surprise verdict the jury declared Bill innocent – as reported on the Daily Mirror front page – and he and Jessie returned to England — separately — in an attempt to start life over.
Sadly the taint of scandal was simply too great for Bill to recover and in a last-ditch effort to reclaim his good name and to regain Jessie’s love, he embarked on a poorly planned attempt to set a new world record for flying from London to Cape Town.
In April 1933 his plane departed from London but days later, he disappeared over the Sahara.
Despite a frantic rescue effort, spearheaded by Jessie from London, no trace of him could be found.
Jessie, for her part, found her own aviation career irreparably harmed by the scandal in America.
She eventually settled down to a happy married life with a fellow pilot named John Pugh, with whom she spent the next three decades in domestic tranquility.
Then in February 12, 1962 the story was back in the news when a French military platoon, on a random sweep through the Sahara, happened upon the wreckage of the biplane with the pilot’s skeletal body visible underneath the wing.
Tied to the wing and encased in a waterproof envelope was the pilot’s logbook, which he turned into a diary recounting the eight days he’d spent dying in the desert, and pouring out his love for the woman he had hoped to win back with his flight.
A quick glance at the logbook showed the pilot’s name Bill Lancaster.
Back home in England with her husband, Jessie, now in her 60s, was stunned by the news of the discovery of Bill’s plane.
It was the most colossal shock anyone can imagine, she said. I have been happily married for 26 years. Then suddenly the past reaches out and takes hold of the present.
The Lost Pilots by Corey Mead published by Macmillan is out now.
News Source MirrorNews