Corey Mead introduces pioneering female pilot Jessie Keith-Miller, whose extraordinary story he shares in The Lost Pilots, which is published in hardback and ebook on the 14th June 2018.
In my book The Lost Pilots: The Spectacular Rise and Scandalous Fall of Aviation’s Golden Couple, I recover the lost history of pioneering female aviator Jessie Keith-Miller, a contemporary and close friend of Amelia Earhart. Jessie was the first woman to fly from England to Australia—at the time, the longest flight ever made by a woman. By way of comparison, three months later, in June 1928, Earhart became famous simply by flying the Atlantic as a passenger, an achievement not to be compared with Jessie’s. Jessie was also the first woman to cross the equator in the air, and the first woman to fly more than 8,000 miles.
In 1929, having relocated to the United States as a newly-crowned celebrity, Jessie became only the third woman to earn a pilot’s license in New York, making her one of a mere thirty-four licensed female pilots in America (in comparison with the thousands of licensed male pilots 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 organization dedicated to advancing women’s roles in aviation. The organization still exists today. In 1930 Jessie set dual speed records for coast-to-coast flying in America.
But despite her fame at the time, Jessie has been almost completely erased from the history books, largely because of her involvement in one of the great domestic scandals of her age. In 1932 her former co-pilot and lover Captain William Lancaster was accused of murdering Jessie’s current fiancé, Haden Clarke, a Miami journalist who was ghostwriting Jessie’s memoirs. Lancaster, the story went, shot Clarke in a fit of jealous rage—an accusation that seemed all the more plausible after Lancaster admitted to having forged Clarke’s supposed suicide note. The subsequent trial in Florida captivated readers around the globe with its sordid accusations of love triangles and bootleg booze-filled nights, becoming, as the Miami Herald dubbed it, “one of the most sensational hearings in the history of Florida.”
Though Lancaster was ultimately—and shockingly—acquitted, Jessie’s now-tattered reputation never recovered, and she soon retired from aviation due to an inability to find work. Her bright promise and record-setting career had been forever dashed by the selfish, violent actions of the men who claimed to love her.