By Ralph Barker
When I was first asked to have a look at this book I thought… hmmmm, not really ‘my thing’. The story of an aircraft found in the African desert, decades after it had disappeared. Nothing to do with World War 2. And not about a man I had ever heard of.
But I was curious and got the book …. and lo and behold, it turned out to be a very interesting read !
The story has actually been written way back in 1969 already, after Bill Lancasters old aircraft and his remains were found in 1962 by a French military patrol in the Sahara desert. But the interesting part is actually Bill’s life BEFORE that fatal crash.
In fact, reading through the first chapters one would easily ome to the conclusion that this man was a failure, a dreamer and pretty irresponsible. He was a great pilot, having quite a few mishaps and taking a lot of risks. Although I guess back in those pioneering days, even a normal flight was quite a risk.
But also in his personal life he wasn’t a great man. He married a wife that he soon left for another woman (Chubbie, an Australian girl). He embarked on a flying adventure – flying from England to Australia in a single engine aircraft) that he couldn’t really get off the ground without the help of that Australian girl. And when they actually flew to Australia THAT didn’t go without a hitch and they arrived too late to set the record he had aimed for.
Later on they moved to America, where Chubbie actually acquired some fame, but where Bill was quickly forgotten.They then move to Miami, and really, the way they live there I am sure would drive me mad! No money, no security, no work….. trying all sorts of things to get an aircraft and a flying job. It gets complicated, with a few men living in a house with his girlfriend Chubby. I won’t spill all the beans here, you have to read it yourself. But I can tell you, it reads like a movie and one wouldn’t believe these things happen for real.
Bill then flies to Mexico with a borrowed aircraft, that of course breaks down several times again on the way. They plan a 72 hour flight that turns out to take 27 days ! Borrowing cars, getting $5 for gas, trying to get a spare engine on borrowed money again…. and the ‘airline job’ turns out to be smuggling people and drugs over the border to the US. This is in 1932. Nothing new under the sun, eh?
The story really takes a weird turn when Bill’s ‘competitor’ for Chubby’s love is found shot in bed, after the three of them have had some emotional meetings that night about their ‘relationship’ issues with the lady. This ultimately turns into one of the more sensational murder trials of the century ! How’s that for an aviation story ! The recordings of the trial then take up quite a substantial part of the book !
The next chapters in the book are about Bill Lancaster’s arrest and the subsequent trail. This part goes in great detail and many of the conversations in the courtroom are penned down literally (probably taken from the official notes of the court’s clerk). It reads like an old Perry Mason tv series…. and although it is quite lengthy and has nothing to do with aviation adventures as such, it will still have you read on. Knowing already what went on prior to the trial, you will want to know if and how Bill escapes from prosecution !
And then the final part of the book….. the part that it all began with from the title and the part I personally was most curious about when I started reading: Bill’s final flight and his diary that was found in the desert 30 years later!
Frankly, it wasn’t so amazing that he crashed the way he did. He was ill prepared, not very fit and not having flown for 12 months…. taking off in bad weather and in a hurry basically. Reading all the (lack of) preparations this was an accident waiting to happen.
But most impressive of the entire book is to imagine how Bill Lancaster must have waited for his death AFTER he wrote that last slip of paper or fabric and after he already tied up his diary, scribbled in his pilot’s log. It is hard to imagine a more lonely and sad death.
So the book goes from telling about a young flyer’s life in the aviation pioneer time of the 1920’s and 30’s, through an adventurous ‘record flight’ to Australia, to a romantic part filled with emotional issues and a less successful flying career and onto a murder trial, followed by yet another record flight and his disappearance in 1933 on that last flight. And ultimately it finishes 30 years later with the discovery of his plane wreck and his diary, which is printed in full at the end of the book.
Although this is not my regular genre of books, I can whole hardheartedly recommend it and I guarantee that you’ll read it from beginning to the very end !
By Ralph Barker
Imprint: Pen & Sword Aviation
Published: 10th December 2015
You can order it direct from the publisher here !
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