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The Lost Pilots by Corey Mead


The Lost Pilots is a narrative non-fiction account of the story of two glamorous aviators in the 1920s and 1930s, Bill Lancaster and Jessie Miller. Australian Jessie is twenty-five years old when she arrives in London fleeing a loveless marriage. Bill is British and fresh from the Royal Air Force when Jessie meets him a gin-soaked party. Bill wants to be more famous than Charles Lindbergh who has just crossed the Atlantic. Bill wants to fly much further – from London to Melbourne. Jessie is caught up in the adventure of it all, and she convinces him she should be his co-pilot. She shows a natural talent for flying, and she’s also a great salesperson who drums up the sponsorship they need for the venture. She also provides publicity as being one of the few female aviators of the time.


These two glamorous individuals start this adventure as business partners, but during their daring and dangerous flight to Melbourne they fall deeply in love. But they are both married to other people, so they are forced to keep their passionate love affair secret. They toured the world for years, however, living together illicitly until their fortunes took a dramatic turn for the worst during the Depression and opportunities for aviators dried up overnight.


The pair ends up living in a run-down mansion on the outskirts of Miami, with no money, so Jessie agrees to write her memoir with the help of a ghost-writer. Haden Clarke, a young, handsome writer joins them in their home, but when Bill takes a flying job to earn some money, Jessie and Haden begin a love affair that will have dire consequences. Haden is shot dead, and Bill is on trial for this murder? The question is, did Bill murder Haden, or did Haden commit suicide?


The Lost Pilots is an exceptionally well-written narrative non-fiction account of this tragic love affair, trail and aftermath. Corey Mead has had access to personal letters, diaries and the newspaper coverage of the time, but his is not a dry and dusty account. It’s a thrilling, fascinating book to read that captures the glamour and danger, of aviation at this time. And it’s also a very thoughtful account of the love and respect between Jessie and Bill, and the love triangle that later develops, fueled by bootleg booze and jealousy.


This is an exciting book with lots of drama, but I think the most tension in the book is the section when Bill is standing trial for murder. If he is convicted, he will automatically get the death penalty, so the stakes are high. I won’t say how the trial ends, but I’m not sure if the jury got it right or not. I still can’t decide after reading the evidence that was presented.


The book also details what happens after the trial, and unfortunately, there is more tragedy just around the corner.


The Lost Pilots is an extraordinary real-life story, one that I would recommend.


Reviewer: Karen McMillan

Macmillan, RRP $37.99

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