Australian filmmaker Andrew Lancaster’s great uncle Bill was a dashing aviator from the golden age of flight, a former British Royal Air Force officer who lived for adventure and romance.
Was he the killer of a rival for the affections of Jessie “Chubbie” Miller, an Australian aviatrix and socialite with whom Bill Lancaster had a six-year, highly public affair? Or did the victim, Haden Clarke, commit suicide as he and Lancaster were arguing over Miller (who claimed during Lancaster’s trial that she was asleep in another room when the gun was fired)?
From a murder mystery in Miami to Bill Lancaster’s death in the desert of North Africa a year later after his airplane crashed, director Andrew Lancaster tracks truths about the tale he grew up with, and asks questions that his family has at times disparaged, denied, and eventually, debated, in The Lost Aviator, The True Story of Bill Lancaster.
The documentary, released in October in England at the London Film Festival, was screened for the first time in the U.S. in March at Florida’s Miami International Film Festival.
The film, co-produced by Noni Couell, casts Ewen Leslie voicing Bill Lancaster; Kipan Rothbury as Haden Clarke; and Yael Stone voicing Chubbie Miller. Distribution in the U.S. is currently in discussions.
Did he do it?
“That’s the crux of the documentary, and that’s what the audience comes out debating,” Andrew Lancaster said in a phone interview. Although he undertook his research convinced that great uncle Bill was a murderer, now, like the jury, he recognizes reasons to doubt.
Co-producer Couell also found herself becoming intrigued with "the mystery and duplicity" of Bill’s character.
"I’m still polarised daily as to whether Bill Lancaster murdered Haden Clarke," she wrote about the journey into the past.
Bill Lancaster, married and a father of two daughters, was an émigré from England to Australia. He had returned to England and joined the RAF. He met the married Miller while raising money for an attempt to be first to fly to Australia. Miller offered support in exchange for accompanying him and becoming the first woman to fly there.
It was an accident-plagued flight, and when they paused too long in Singapore, another pilot, Bert Hinkler, arrived first in Australia. Nonetheless Bill Lancaster and Chubbie Miller received a celebrity’s welcome on arrival.
Haden Clarke appeared on the scene—which had shifted to Miami—to ghostwrite Miller’s autobiography while Bill was out of the country flying for money.
Bill returned, and the fatal confrontation occurred on April 20, 1932. After an 18-day trial with some notably irregular aspects, Lancaster was acquitted, escaping execution.
The next year, hoping to rebuild his reputation, he attempted to fly from London to Cape Town, South Africa, but his Avro Avian Southern Cross Minor biplane’s engine failed and he crashed in the Sahara Desert.
The wreck (and Lancaster’s "mummified body," with a hand clutching his throat) was discovered in 1962. It was learned from his writings that Lancaster had survived eight days, keeping a diary by day, burning aircraft fabric at night for warmth and possible rescue—placing his date of death on April 20, 1933, exactly a year after Haden Clarke’s demise.
Lancaster had flown 45 miles off course, thwarting a series of ground-based searches. Andrew Lancaster described the macabre sight of the crashed airplane, stripped to a "skeleton" of its fabric, near where Bill Lancaster’s body lay.
"It was a real shock that he was found at all," said Andrew, noting that Bill’s survival for eight days under conditions that typically claimed victims within hours built on his image as a mythical figure.
The wreck’s discovery gave a start to the family. One of Bill’s two daughters, reading a newspaper account of an aircraft being found in the Algerian desert, had exclaimed, "I think that’s my father," Andrew said.
There were theories about the cause of the crash, 45 miles off the plotted course. The 1920s biplane was not fast, and Bill Lancaster may have been unprepared for the flight. Tired and sleep-deprived, he was flying on a dark night with no lights, with poor visual references and only a compass for navigation. Carburetor ice has been offered as a possible cause of the engine failure. A suicide attempt was suggested. Andrew Lancaster dismisses that idea, noting Bill's struggle to survive, and his decision to abide by a pact he had once made with Chubbie to “stick by the plane” following an accident.
A flyable Avro Avian from the Golden Wings Flying Museum of Blaine, Minnesota, brings Lancaster’s aircraft back to life in the documentary. Greg Herrick, owner of the aircraft collection, had also become "captured by the story," said Andrew.
"Greg was amazing to us," he said, relating that Herrick gave him a ride above the Mississippi River in a Stinson tri-motor, providing Andrew with his first flight in an aircraft from his great uncle’s era.
Andrew grants that guilty or not, Bill Lancaster "was very lucky to get off," on the murder charge given that "it was his gun, he had the motive," and had forged a suicide note from Clarke, claiming later that he did it in a panic because he feared being blamed for the killing.
But, Andrew added, as he delved ever more deeply and read his ancestor’s many writings, he came to believe that "the more you get to know him, the more you realize that that just seems completely out of character."
"He was a very complicated character who didn’t always write what he meant," Andrew said.