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Jessie Miller soared high against the backdrop of accepted sexism in her day. She was a daring pilot, lover and was proudly all her. A true trailblazer in every sense of the word.
I admit that in selecting great Australian mavericks to introduce to you, I have often chosen people who have furthered a political cause. From Crichley Parker Jr. to Louisa Lawson and Eddie Mabo, these were champions of constitutional and civic change, activists who showed us how our world, our country, could be better. But sometimes somebody demonstrates that, by just being them and doing what comes naturally. One of those fortunate individuals was Jessie Miller, a girl from Southern Cross, 230 miles from Perth, who became the first woman to complete a flight from England to Australia. It was 1928, and Jessie was 26 years old. By her side was Bill Lancaster, her fellow pilot, and illicit lover. Together they would make waves throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, and Jessie, or Chubbie, as everybody called her, would show that women were more than capable of doing daring, difficult and adventurous things. Chubbie and her mates Amelia Earhart and Amy Johnson were inspirational aviators, true pioneers in an industry that had only started a year before, with Charles Lindbergh and his 1927 flight from America to England. Although Lindbergh himself turned up his nose at women pilots, to me Jessie Miller is a great Australian and a true maverick. Our number 16, in fact.
But her life didn’t start like that. Born as the daughter of a bank manager, she was brought up “to respect and obey”, as one of her biographers recently wrote. During her childhood, the family moved a lot: from Southern Cross to Broken Hill, to Timaru in New Zealand and then to Melbourne. Chubbie was bored all the way, itching to leave home and do something interesting. But the only way out was marriage, so in 1919 she tied the knot with journalist Keith Miller. During the first few years of the 1920s, Chubbie did her best to conform, but after she lost three babies, her father and her brother in the space of four years, she had enough. Depressed and tired, she proposed a trip to England to her husband, just to get away and regroup. But he didn’t want to come or pay for her to go, so Chubbie did the first unconventional thing of her life: she got herself a job, demonstrating the first vacuum cleaners in shops in rural Victoria.
Soon, she had enough money to pay for her fare and in 1927 she got on a ship to England. There, at a party, she met Captain William Newton Lancaster, also named Bill, a RAF reservist who had set his sights on becoming the first man to fly from London to Darwin in a light aircraft. The problem was that he didn’t have any money and that meant that he was vulnerable to a proposal from Chubbie: she would raise the funds, but only in exchange for her tagging along. Bill wasn’t very keen on women flying, and besides, he was a married man with two children. But Chubbie was persistent and more to the point, she was successful. Mostly profiting from people’s fascination for a woman wanting to fly, she got the money together and in 1928, the Red Rose was ready to go.
Bill was an experienced pilot. Born in Birmingham, he had been sent to Australia by his parents at age 16, in order to gain experience on the land. He had worked as a jackaroo and, together with his brother Jack, as a sparky in Hay, before he enlisted in the Australian Flying Corps in 1916. For a year or so, he had ferried warplanes across to France, before crashing in a snowstorm in 1918. After the war, he had done all kinds of jobs, including policing the Afghanistan-Waziristan border as a pilot. So he was more than ready for the trip: almost 15,000 kilometers from London to Darwin, via Paris, Rome, Tripoli, Cairo, Baghdad, Karachi, Calcutta, Rangoon and Batavia (now Indonesia). Chubbie, of course, had no experience whatsoever, but according to Bill, she would learn on the job.
And learn she did. Fly, fix the plane, filter the petrol and protect the two-seat Avro Avian biplane with an automatic pistol on her hip from men wanting to steal it from a field outside of Baghdad. The trip was as perilous as they come. Bill and Chubbie were vulnerable in the open cockpit, with a plane that consisted of very little more than wood and linen covered with glue. There was driving rain that grounded them. There were sandstorms and moments where the machine suddenly plummeted. There were gale-force winds and forced landings in the desert, where they were welcomed by RAF officers who shared their stewed gazelle with them. They got caught in a cholera outbreak, met local royalty like the Maharajah at Jodhpur and the Amir of Afghanistan and flew over the Ganges River, full of crocodiles and hundreds of dead bodies. Leaving Rangoon, Chubbie found a snake under her seat, which she had to kill with her joystick. And everywhere people came out to see her, this diminutive woman who had now gained the world record for the longest flight ever undertaken by a woman.
Also on The Big Smoke
- Eddie Mabo: His legacy is much greater than “the vibe”
- Critchley Parker: Our own Oskar Schindler, cheated by fate
- Louisa Lawson: Writer, agitator, mother to us all
- Don Dunstan: The man who decriminalised homosexuality
- William Cuffay: The grandson of a slave that fought the British Empire
But in Muntok, in what is now Indonesia, it went wrong. Suddenly the plane went into free fall, with the right wing slamming into the ground. Both of them were bleeding heavily and Chubbie had a broken nose, but they were alive. The biggest problem was the plane. It needed thorough repairs and it took months for parts to arrive. This lost them their record. While they were still waiting to take off again they got word that Bert Hinkler, the son of a German-born Australian stockman from Bundaberg, had done what they had set out to do. In 16 days. Nevertheless, when they landed in Darwin, after a 129-day adventure, thousands of people came out to cheer them on, and there were telegrams from the PM and other notables. Over the next couple of weeks they saw the whole of the country, drawing enormous crowds from Brisbane to Sydney, Melbourne to Hobart. But soon they realised that Australia was a little bit too small for them, so in June 1928 they sailed for America, hoping to capitalise on their newfound fame. Chubbie would never return.
In the States, Chubbie decided to first get officially licensed and in April 1929 she passed all her tests and was granted a United States private pilot’s license. That was just in time, because a month later the first all female air derby was going to start: almost 5,000 kilometers from California to Ohio, one side of the country to the other, in nine days. Nineteen women registered, among them the most famous female pilot of the day and one of Chubbie’s friends: Amelia Earhart. These were solo flights, with the pilots reading maps, keeping an eye on their compass and landmarks on the ground and doing the flying. Not everybody was convinced. A newspaper columnist wrote that “women pilots are to emotional, vain and frivolous to fly and are hazards to themselves and others” and Lindbergh snuffed at his female colleagues. Nevertheless, most of them arrived in one piece and Chubbie managed to earn herself third place in the light-plane division and the great sum of $325. The contest would go down in history as the Powder Puff Derby, another less-than-respectful quip from a male reporter that stuck. But out of the race came an international organisation for women pilots, the Ninety-Nines, which still exists.
Unfortunately, not long after the Derby, Wall Street crashed and aviation was put on the backburner. Chubbie and Bill, now in possession of commercial licenses, tried their hand at just about anything connected to flying, but jobs were few and far between and money was tight. In 1932, in the midst of massive, country-wide unemployment, Bill got himself involved with a dodgy Latin-American company, smuggling all manner of stuff, probably drugs as well. Chubbie stayed at their apartment in Miami, where she was trying to deal with Charles Haden Clarke, a man sent to ghostwrite her biography. With Bill away and not enough work as a pilot, Chubbie started to drink. And then she let herself be seduced by Haden, who offered marriage, money and freedom. Bill came home as soon as he realised what was happening and a few days later, Haden was dead from a bullet-wound to the head. It didn’t look good. The gun used was Bill’s and soon he had to admit that the suicide-notes that were found by Haden’s body were written by him as well. Briefly, Chubbie was sent to the same goal, suspected of involvement in the death. But it was Bill who was charged with murder and this led to the trial of the century. Chubbie was still famous and soon the police found love letters that pointed to an illicit relationship between her and Bill, who was, of course, a married man. The scandal was enormous.
The electric chair threatened, but in the end, Bill was acquitted and both he and Chubbie were thrown out of the country instead. But the Depression hadn’t treated Britain better than America. Bill couldn’t find work and finally, in desperation, he decided to try and beat Amy Johnson’s recent record of flying from England to South Africa. He disappeared over the Sahara in April 1933, only to be found in 1962. Next to his mummified corpse was the picture of a smiling woman wearing a flying helmet and goggles. Chubbie, in the mean time, had found herself a job making aerial survey maps in West-Africa. This is where she met her second husband, pilot John Pugh. She died in 1972, never having flown again. For a long time, Jessie “Chubbie” Miller was forgotten, even in Australia. This year saw the publication of two biographies. Maybe it is time to finally give her the respect she deserves. As a pilot, as a pioneer, as a maverick to be proud of.