LIFE

Australian Firsts: Jessie Keith Miller, The First Aviatrix To Cross The Equator

Many of her achievements were shadowed by a murder trial involving her co-pilot.

01/04/2017 3:27 PM AEDT | Updated 02/04/2017 6:57 AM AEST
Spicer/NT Library
Jessie 'Chubbie' Miller was one of our most fascinating adventurers.

Jessie Keith Miller was thrown into the international spotlight in the late 1920s when, escaping from the boredom of her life in Melbourne, she fled to the UK where she managed to convince British aviator Bill Lancaster to let her be his co-pilot.

Even though she'd never flown before, she became the first to woman fly across the equator -- a 22,000km flight from England to Australia.

According to author Chrystopher Spicer who researched Miller's life for his latest book, she achieved a multitude of 'firsts' for Australia. Spicer told The Huffington Post Australia due to unsavoury controversy in her life, Australians soon forgot about Miller (whose tongue-in-cheek nickname was 'Chubbie.')

"She was also the first woman across the Timor Sea in the air and the first woman to ever fly so far – further than Amelia Earhart at the time. As far as I know, she was also the first European woman to cross the Middle East and fly into the Far East. In Australia she was the first woman to cross the continent north to south in the air and the first woman to pilot a plane across Bass Strait," Spicer said.

"A few years ago I wrote a biography of Clark Gable. He came from Ohio and when I was over there, somebody said, 'Did you hear the story about the Australian woman who came down in a field near here in her plane during a race in 1929?' I had no idea there was any Australian woman flying out of Australia, so I investigated the story."

Spicer/NT Library
Jessie Keith Miller and Bill Lancaster after they landed at Darwin in 1928 after flying from England. Note Jessie's shorts that set the nation agog.

Here are just some of Miller's incredible achievements:

  • In the US, she was the first woman from the Southern Hemisphere to compete in international races and break records in the Northern Hemisphere, and so the first woman to truly unite the global sky.

  • She was the only Southern Hemisphere competitor in the 1929 transcontinental Women's National Air Derby (Powder Puff Derby), which is where she made friends with Amelia Earhart, and after which a group of those famous women pilots, including Miller, founded the Ninety Nines: the first organisation for women pilots (which still exists).

  • Miller went on to break the US transcontinental air speed record in both directions, and to be the first woman (and only the second person) to fly from the US East Coast to Cuba. She was even the first woman to be awarded a commercial pilot licence in Canada.

Spicer/NT Library
Miller (back to camera) and Lancaster refuelling the over-wing tank at Toowoomba on their way south after landing at Darwin. The photo clearly shows what an awkward and dangerous process this was. Jessie frequently suffered petrol burns when the wind blew fuel over her.

"One of my favourite stories about Miller is when they found a venomous snake in the cockpit after she and Lancaster had taken off from Rangoon, which Miller promptly dealt with by unpinning the joystick and beating the snake over the head with it before throwing it over the side," Spicer said.

"She was the 1929 equivalent in newspapers everywhere of the 'snake on a plane' airwoman. She was sending reports to newspapers constantly, so the whole journey was reported as they went along."

Sadly, Miller's career came to a halt when she was caught up in Lancaster's sensational Miami trial for the murder of her lover, Haden Clarke. Lancaster who was painted as the jilted lover, was eventually acquitted amid great controversy.

"It was a huge, sensational murder trial in Miami. It was very theatrical and it became an international sensation. Miller was the star witness and the controversy came because it's believed Miller and Lancaster came to a deal to get him off. But it would mean trashing her reputation in order to get him off the hook," Spicer said.

Spicer

A few years later, Lancaster mysteriously disappeared while flying across the Sahara Desert, apparently trying to restore his reputation. Thirty years later, when Miller was in her 60s, Lancaster's plane -- and his body -- were unexpectedly discovered in the desert, along with his journal.

Miller and many others wondered if it would finally reveal who killed Haden Clarke. But the journal was basically a record of the days leading up to his death.

"Miller was a remarkable woman and it was very unfortunate that she became entangled in the Lancaster murder trial, which subsequently impacted on her reputation although not on her flying ability. She later flew from England across the Sahara and into West Africa," Spicer said.

"I think because of the trial and because she never returned to Australia, the country forgot about her. I really hope my book can help her regain the recognition she so truly deserves."

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