Bill Lancaster: Lost in the Sahara After Attempting to Break the England-Cape Town Flight Speed Record
The mummified remains of the pilot lay beneath the framework of a wing that had once provided shade. Dried by the desert air, the corpse’s exposed skin was like parchment. Above the right eyebrow a gaping cut sustained during the crash could still be seen. Nearby, on a leather-bound fuel card, was a final message: ‘So the beginning of the eighth day has dawned. It is still cool. I have no water….I am waiting patiently. Come soon please. Fever wracked me last night. Hope you get my full log. Bill.’
The wreck was discovered by a French army motorized desert patrol on February 12, 1962, 29 years after those last words were written. Heading across the Sahara on a routine sweep, the patrol sighted the wrecked plane 37 miles off the trans-Sahara track, in the Tanezrouft area–the desert’s heart, which even the wandering Bedouins avoid. They call it the ‘Land of Thirst.’ In order to survive in its searing, dehydrating heat a person needs 2 gallons of water per day.
Only the buckled skeleton of the small, single-engine biplane remained. Severely damaged during a crash landing, the aircraft lay on its back. Wrapped in fabric and wired to a wing strut were the aircraft’s log book and other documents, including a passport and a wallet containing a photo of a smiling woman wearing a flying helmet and goggles.
A brief inspection disclosed that the dead pilot was Captain Bill Lancaster, who had vanished in 1933 while attempting to set an England-Cape Town speed record in a tiny Avro Avian biplane. The story of the events that led to his agonizing death alone in the desert reads like a Hollywood screenplay.
Born in Birmingham, England, in 1898, Lancaster emigrated to Australia before the outbreak of World War I. In 1916 he enlisted in the Australian army, and he served in the Middle East and France before transferring to the Australian Flying Corps for pilot training. Following the Armistice he joined Britain’s peacetime Royal Air Force (RAF).
The square-jawed Lancaster was a champion amateur boxer and an accomplished horseman. Brash and rebellious, he incurred his commanding officer’s displeasure by getting married in 1919, at the tender age of 21. (To discourage officers from marrying under the age of 25, Britain’s military services denied them the customary marriage quarters and pay allowance.)
Lancaster’s RAF tour of duty came to an end in 1927, after service in India as a fighter pilot. Flying jobs were hard to come by, and he decided to try to make his name by flying to Australia in an Avro Avian. Powered by an 80-horsepower ADC Cirrus engine, the 900-pound two-seater was one of the new breed of British light touring planes. A.V. Roe and Co. Ltd. agreed to provide a special long-range Avian at a reduced price, and Shell offered him free fuel. Even so, Lancaster could not find sufficient funds to make the flight–until a chance meeting that changed his whole life.
While partying in London, Lancaster was introduced to Jessie Miller, a petite Australian woman. Known by her friends as ‘Chubbie,’ she was then living apart from her Australian journalist husband. Chubbie yearned to become the first woman to make the long flight to Australia, and she persuaded Lancaster to carry her as a passenger, offering to provide half the funds required for the flight.
Lancaster’s wife agreed to the plan and saw them off at London’s Croydon Airport on October 14, 1927. Bound for Darwin in the Avro Avian Mk.III Red Rose, Lancaster had no plans to set any speed record. It was just as well, for five months elapsed before they reached Australia. Their flight, a 14,000-mile marathon, was punctuated by bad weather, mechanical problems and finally a crash landing on an island off Sumatra, part of Indonesia.
While waiting for their damaged machine to be repaired, they were passed by another Avro Avian en route to Darwin. ‘Hustling’ Bert Hinkler–Australia’s Lindbergh–was nearly home on his pioneering first solo flight between England and Australia.
Lancaster and Miller received a rousing reception when they finally touched down in Darwin. Their flight had been the longest ever undertaken by a woman. The pair then toured the country, lecturing and greeting the public at civic receptions. During the six months they were thrown together, Bill and Chubbie fell in love.
In June 1928 they sailed to the United States to play roles in a Hollywood movie, but the film was never made. Six months later Lancaster was flying around America helping to publicize British aircraft engines. Urged by his deeply religious parents, the airman had decided to try to reconcile his teetering marriage and had been joined by his wife. Things did not work out, however, and she soon returned to England, refusing to give Lancaster a divorce.
Meanwhile, Chubbie Miller had gained a pilot’s license at the Red Bank school in New Jersey and launched her own aviation career. Americans nicknamed her ‘the Australian Aviatrix’ when she appeared in the 1929 Women’s Aerial Derby and the Ford Reliability Tour. In October 1930 she set transcontinental speed records in both directions, flying a ‘killer’ monoplane called the Alexander Bullet.
In 1932 Chubbie employed a tall, good-looking young writer named Hayden Clarke to ghost-write a book about her adventures. Clarke joined Miller and Lancaster in the house they had rented in Miami. The Great Depression hung over America, and it was difficult to find work as a freelance pilot. Lancaster headed to Mexico, where he was promised work, leaving Chubbie and the young author to collaborate on the book.
With Lancaster away, Chubbie was lonely and bored. Clarke spun a heart-rending web of lies that completely ensnared the Australian woman. When Clarke begged Chubbie to marry him, she accepted.
Lancaster was shattered when he heard the news. His nerves at the breaking point, he flew home and begged her to rethink the matter. Hopelessly entangled in a classic love triangle, the trio stayed together in the Miami house on the night of April 20, 1932. During that night Clarke was shot in the head. Rushed to a hospital, he died a few hours later. Police found two suicide notes and were at first satisfied that the young writer had shot himself. But a week later Lancaster was arrested and charged with murder. The suicide notes appeared to be forgeries.
During the sensational trial, few believed Lancaster would escape the electric chair. The prosecution’s case seemed watertight until, as the proceedings progressed and the facts became known, the airman’s alibi was discovered to be plausible. It was disclosed that Clarke had been mentally unbalanced, had one bigamous marriage behind him, was a drug addict and had previously spoken of committing suicide.
Women fainted as ballistics experts examined the dead man’s skull in open court. Their conclusions pointed toward suicide. But it was Lancaster’s personal diary, which had been entered in evidence against him, that most impressed the judge in his favor. Summing up to the jury, the judge stated: ‘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 released, after which he and Chubbie returned to England. Broke and with no friends to turn to, the airman desperately sought a way to re-establish himself in aviation. He finally decided to attempt a record-breaking flight, thinking that if he succeeded prospective employers might forget the glare of negative publicity that had surrounded his trial.
He chose to attack the much-publicized England-Cape Town record. In the early 1930s this was the most challenged route among British 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’s record attempt was financed by his father. Seeking out his favorite mount, the Avro Avian, he eventually purchased the single-seat Avian Mk.V Southern Cross Minor, which had previously been owned by Australian transpacific hero Sir Charles Kingsford Smith. Flying Southern Cross Minor in 1931, Smith had unsuccessfully attacked Mollison’s Australia-England record.
Though ideal for long-distance flying, the Avian had one great drawback. Its cruising speed was about 10 mph slower than that of Amy Mollison’s De Havilland Puss Moth. Thus, in order to beat the British airwoman’s Cape Town record Lancaster would have to spend less time on the ground during refueling stops. He planned to allow no more than two hours for sleep at any stop.
A lone journalist, Lancaster’s parents and Chubbie came to see him off from Lympne Aerodrome, on England’s south coast, in the early morning of April 11, 1933. The flier planned to cover the 1,850 kilometers to Oran during the first day before commencing his flight across the Sahara and down the gut of Africa. Lancaster told the reporter: ‘I want to make it clear that I am attempting this flight at my own risk. I don’t expect any efforts to be made to find me if I’m reported missing.’
Lancaster privately told his family this would be his final effort to get back into aviation, saying that he did not relish the notion of coming home a failure. Those comments later led to speculation that he had deliberately flown to his death.
He said goodbye and embraced his parents. His mother handed him a small package containing chicken sandwiches, a bar of chocolate and a thermos flask of coffee. Other than a 2-gallon drum of water, he carried no survival supplies. Minutes later, at 5:38 a.m., the Avian took off. Ahead lay 6,600 miles of open-cockpit, visual navigation, including the dreaded 1,450-mile desert crossing.
It is doubtful that Lancaster was physically or mentally prepared for the flight. In the previous 12 months he had spent three months in jail, then lived on the brink of a nervous breakdown through his harrowing trial. Other than a couple of hours ferrying Southern Cross Minor from the Avro airfield near Manchester, he had not flown for a year.
Yet for Lancaster to beat Amy Mollison’s record, he now faced some 72 flying hours compressed into no more than 41Ž4 days. A major portion of the time spent on the ground would be taken up with servicing and refueling his aircraft. It was a challenge that would have driven even the fittest man to the edge of exhaustion. And to top it all, Lancaster felt there could be no second attempt. It would be a do-or-die effort.
Unfavorable winds forced an unplanned refueling stop at Barcelona, Spain. After he reached Oran, in North Africa, further delays robbed Lancaster of another two hours, and by the time he prepared to depart Oran at 3 a.m. he was 61Ž2 hours behind schedule. French officials in Oran had sensibly tried to detain him. They considered him in no condition to cross the desert. Reminded of the requirement to deposit $2,000 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.’
The Frenchmen stepped aside, and Lancaster climbed aboard the Avian and took off on the leg of the flight he judged the most demanding, crossing the Atlas Mountains in darkness. The Avian had no cockpit lighting, so every few minutes during that long night Lancaster had to use a flashlight to check his compass heading.
At daylight he picked up the trans-Sahara track leading to the next refueling point at Reggan. The strain was taking its toll by now, and to confirm his position he landed at Adrar, 100 miles north of his intended destination, at 8:30 a.m.
He refueled quickly and an hour later was again airborne. His plan was now to overfly Reggan and complete the Sahara crossing in one hop.
From his performance over the next four hours, it is obvious that Lancaster should have given up the record chase that day. Instead of heading south over Reggan as planned, he followed the wrong track. Completely confused, he eventually landed at a small town 110 miles to the east of Reggan. Realizing his mistake, he then headed off again for Reggan. But once again–this time confused by strong winds–he ended up back at Adrar, where he finally headed south, following the correct desert track to Reggan.
Having wasted 4 1/2 hours, Lancaster was forced to land at Reggan for fuel. He had been 30 hours in the air without rest and could barely stand by that time, let alone fly an aircraft. Officials begged him to get some sleep, but Lancaster realized that he was now 10 hours behind schedule, and he knew the record was nearly out of his grasp. If he delayed at Reggan, he could not make up the lost time. Even if he took off straightaway, he had only a slim chance for success.
The enormous pressure of this decision must have weighed heavily on Lancaster. He must have believed that if he did not set a record, he would have failed Chubbie and their hopes for a bright new future, as well as his parents, who had used their savings to finance his flight. To his way of thinking, he would face the world as a failure. Lancaster probably decided it would be better to go down fighting than give up–even if it meant his death.
Unable to dissuade Lancaster, a Mr. Borel, the head of the Trans-Saharienne Company post at Reggan, promised to mount a search if the airman did not reach Gao within 24 hours. ‘If we don’t hear anything by 6 p.m. tomorrow I will send a search car down the track to Gao,’ he told Lancaster. ‘If you can burn something to light a beacon, we should see you.’
Bill Lancaster’s last takeoff took place at 6:30 p.m. on April 12, 1933. He had no cockpit lighting, no landing lights, no signal flares and only 2 gallons of water with him. Ahead lay 800 miles of uninhabited desert and the ‘Land of Thirst.’ Witnesses later recalled that the takeoff was a snaking ground run followed by a mad, lurching grab for height. They saw the dazed pilot head in the wrong direction for several minutes before finally turning and disappearing south into the twilight.
From here on, the story of Lancaster’s last days comes from the diary on the brittle pages of the logbook recovered by the French army so many years later. His plan to follow the road south was confounded within an hour by the pitch-dark of the desert night. The narrow ribbon of road on the desert floor was soon lost from sight. Lancaster was not unduly concerned, however, thinking that if he held on an accurate compass heading he would stay within a few kilometers of the safety of the roadway all the way to Gao.
At 8 p.m. Lancaster began the 500-mile traverse of open desert, where the road curved up to 35 miles away from his intended flight path before road and flight path linked up again near the Niger River. He never reached the linkup. Thirty minutes later his engine gave a warning cough. Lancaster flashed his torch about the cockpit, but all seemed to be in order. Five minutes later the engine started missing badly and the aircraft rapidly lost height. The first entry in Lancaster’s diary, written at 5 o’clock the next morning, tells the story: ‘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.’
Lancaster took stock of his situation. He had deep lacerations on his nose and above his eye, and he felt weak from loss of blood. His 2-gallon water drum was undamaged, and he still had the bar of chocolate, a flask of coffee, and the now rock-hard chicken sandwiches given him by his mother. With careful rationing of water (‘a flask per day’), Lancaster reckoned he could survive for seven days.
Southern Cross Minor was a total wreck. It was a miracle it had not caught fire upon crashing, although Lancaster might have preferred to perish quickly in the crash rather than suffer an agonizing death from thirst.
Lancaster characteristically resorted to rationalizing his situation in his diary. He agonized over the decision to stay with the wrecked aircraft or strike out for the road so as not to miss the search car promised by Borel. He wrote: ‘I thought of walking to the [trans-Sahara] track and prepared to set out, but Chubbie’s and my talk about this came to mind. No: I must stick to the ship….I must crawl under the lower wing and hide myself till sundown.’
Bill and Chubbie were well aware that many fliers had lost their lives attempting to walk to safety. The rule for downed pilots was to stay with their aircraft no matter what, since it afforded shade and could be more easily seen by search aircraft than a man on foot.
In theory, Lancaster was quite right. He could not have known that the aerial search would be concentrated at the southern end of his route. The authorities did not think he would have run into trouble so soon after leaving Reggan. Thus, only Borel’s car initially searched the northern end of his route, and Lancaster’s plane was too far from the road to be seen by ground vehicles. By the time the search was widened, it was too late.
On the first night, when the car promised by Borel was searching the length of the trans-Sahara track, Lancaster lit flares made from aircraft fabric soaked in petrol. In the black desert night they were visible for miles. He even made a sketch of himself holding one of the makeshift flares over his head. ‘My flares were a success, at least they showed a brilliant light for 60 seconds. I burnt one every fifteen minutes to half an hour,’ he wrote. But no one came. The car from Reggan crossed the wilderness to Gao without sighting the downed airman.
Lancaster spent the passing days beneath the wing of the Avro, filling the pages of his log, reflecting on his situation and his love for his family. He was aware how slim a chance there was of being found. His writing showed great lucidity and insight into his situation and about the problems faced by his searchers.
During the day the desert heat was so intense that the sand could burn bare flesh. Lancaster lay in the shade of the wing wearing only his silk underwear. But the nights were so cold that he needed to wear every bit of clothing he had with him. ‘Vest, shirt, sweater, coat, flying jacket, muffler of wool, trousers, flying trousers over them, socks and underpants,’ the airman wrote, describing his nighttime costume. ‘In spite of all this I am still chilly.’
Despite his dire situation Lancaster found time for almost lighthearted comment. Sighting a circling vulture, he wrote: ‘Watching the vulture fly made me wish I could catch him and tame him and leap astride and fly to a pool of water. I would not mind how dirty it was. There is a little brown and white bird a little bigger than a sparrow settled just near me. I wonder how far an oasis is?’
On the fourth day, as the sun was setting, Lancaster made a diary entry that shows his hope of rescue was fading. He wrote: ‘Chubbie my sweetheart, and mother my best friend and father my pal, do not grieve, I have only myself to blame for everything. That foolish, headstrong self of me.’
Later the same evening, however, his spirits were renewed by the sight of an aircraft flare burning in the sky on the far south horizon. At dawn he recorded: ‘Just after dusk I saw a Very light fired some distance away. I immediately answered with my remaining flare–so I assume I am located. I trust so.’ Lancaster also noted that he drank a celebratory thermos flask of water.
Throughout the following day he waited, eyes glued to the horizon. His diary entry recorded: ‘Am suffering mental torment again….No machines in the sky etc. I wish I had not drunk that extra flask of water. I have cut my chance by a day.’ And later, ‘Chubbie remember I kept my word, I stuck to the ship.’ Lancaster also wrote about thirst and how it ‘drives a man mad.’ Discussing the possibility of a rescue (‘oh please Mr Airman bring out your machine and come and find me’) versus what he called ‘the END,’ Lancaster wrote: ‘If the latter please God I pass out like a gentleman.’
The log, recovered 33 years later, not only explains the circumstances of the last flight but also says much about Lancaster and how gallantly he faced death. Like the diary that was read at his trial, it adds weight to the murder jury’s ‘not guilty’ verdict. Not one word of the Hayden Clarke tragedy appears in the diary, a fact that seems to indicate Lancaster was not concerned about the incident. This is perhaps the best proof of his innocence in that affair. He does not seem to have been a man who could have faced death with an unconfessed crime on his conscience.
On the seventh day after the wreck, weak and emaciated, he was down to his last pint of water. It would be his ‘last day on earth,’ Lancaster wrote. Unafraid of death, he spoke philosophically, proud to have survived a week in mid-Sahara on only 2 gallons of water. He wrote long messages to all his family but was concerned that somehow the diary must reach them one day. He wrote: ‘The chin is right up to the last I hope. Am now tying this log book up in fabric….’ And later on his Shell fuel card he wrote, ‘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.’
That night Lancaster finished his last drops of water and lay down to die. At dawn on April 20, 1933, exactly one year after he, Chubbie and Hayden Clarke had spent that fateful last night together in Miami, Lancaster was still alive, and he added the final message on his fuel card. He probably died soon after, in the scorching heat of the day, still waiting for the help that came eventually–29 years too late.
Captain Bill Lancaster’s body was buried in Reggan by the French air force. Chubbie Miller, who had married a British pilot in 1936, finally received Lancaster’s message from the grave in April 1962.
As the beneficiary of Lancaster’s will, Chubbie was handed the logbook, with its 41 pages of diary entries, as well as the other documents recovered from the wreck site. Lancaster’s former lover was so moved by the bravery disclosed by his remarkable diary that she allowed it to be published.
This article was written by Terry Gwynn-Jones and originally published in the January 2000 issue of Aviation History magazine. For more great articles subscribe to Aviation History magazine today!