This week Rachel tells us the incredible story of the life and disappearance of Amelia Earhart! Then she shares a few theories as to what happened, as well! Next Emily tells the harrowing story of Deborah Kiley, a sailor that was lost at sea for 6 days with five friends. Three of them met a horrifying fate. Hopefully, you’re horrified!
Story 1 – Amelia Earhart
Today I’m going to tell you all about the life and disappearance of Amelia Earhart.
Amelia Earhart was born in Atchison, KS on July 24, 1897. Her father was a railroad lawyer and her mother came from money. She was an adventurous kid, and from an early age she began to challenge traditional gender roles. She played basketball and took an auto repair class. However, her early life was not without struggle. Amelia’s father was an alcoholic and her family moved often.
Amelia Earhart graduated from high school in 1916. Around this time, her mother received a large inheritance, and Amelia was able to attend college at the Ogontz School for Young Ladies in Pennsylvania. Essentially, this school was founded as a finishing school for little rich girls, however I’m not sure that this was its purpose by the time Amelia attended.
Anywho, she didn’t finish the former finishing school. Amelia went to Canada to visit her sister, where she realized her affinity for caring for wounded WWI soldiers. So in 1918, she went to Toronto, leaving college to work as a nurse’s aide for the Red Cross. She spent her free time watching the pilots in the Royal Flying Corps train. I’m speculating here, but I like to think that as she watched them she thought, “I could do that.”
When the war ended, Amelia Earhart was accepted into a pre-med program at Columbia. For some reason, her parents didn’t want her all the way across the country in NYC, and insisted that she come to California to live with them.
She did, but I don’t think it worked out the way her parents had in mind. Amelia traveled by airplane for the first time in 1920 with WWI pilot Frank Hawks, and she fell in love – with flying, not Frank. She was so enamored that she started taking flying lessons – with a female flight instructor named Neta Snook. To help pay for the lessons, Amelia worked as a filing clerk at a phone company. In 1921, she bought her first plane. It was bright yellow, so she called it “The Canary.” She passed her flight test that December, earning her license, and, wasting absolutely no time, 2 days later she participated in her first flight exhibition in Pasadena.
Not one to stay in one place for too long, Amelia Earhart moved to Massachusetts in the mid ‘20s, where she became a social worker at the Denison House, which was a home for immigrants. But she did not lose her passion for flying.
And luckily for Amelia, Big Airplane (or whoever, I read “promoters”) wanted to have a woman fly across the Atlantic Ocean. In 1927, Charles Lindberg was the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic, and the powers-at-be were all, LADIES TOO.
Regardless, Amelia Earhart was selected to make history too. And on June 17, 1928, she departed from Newfoundland, Canada as a passenger, traveling with pilots Wilmer Stultz and Louis Gordon. They landed in Wales on June 18, and Amelia started to get real famous. She toured the US talking about the 20+ hour flight, though much of her publicity was handled by her publisher, George Palmer Putnam.
And apparently publishing wasn’t the only thing he was good at, because they got married in 1931 – and, in a move that seems like it was way before its time, Amelia Earhart kept her maiden name. Oh and she also piloted a plane that set a record, because the altitude was 18,415 feet.
But that wasn’t enough for her. Amelia didn’t want to only be known for being a passenger on the flight from Canada to the UK – she wanted to fly across the Atlantic herself. So in May of 1932, she flew from Newfoundland, Canada to Londonderry, Ireland, in a record time of 14 hours and 56 minutes. As if that weren’t impressive enough, she broke this record despite a metric shit ton of problems, including mechanical difficulties and bad weather. She was supposed to land in Paris, but couldn’t, I’m assuming due to weather, but she improvised in a way that set records, which is my literal dream.
When she arrived back in the US, Congress awarded her a military decoration: the Distinguished Flying cross, for ““heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.” She was the first ever woman to receive this honor.
And she wasn’t done. Later that year, Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly nonstop across the US – she traveled from LA to Newark, NJ.
While she was breaking all the barriers, she was encouraging other women to do the same. In 1929, Amelia helped found an organization of female pilots, later referred to as the Ninety Nines. She was their first president. She also debuted a clothing line for women in 1933 that was *gasp* functional and intended “for the woman who lives actively.”
It’s like the country’s first yoga clothes.
In 1935, Amelia made history again by piloting the first solo flight from Hawaii to California. This route was 2,408 miles long, which is farther than the US is from Europe. It took her 17 hours and 7 minutes to get from HI to Oakland. Later in 1935 she also became the first person to fly solo from LA to Mexico City.
In 1937, Amelia decided that she had bigger fish to fry: She was going to be the first pilot ever to fly around the world. On June 1, with navigator Fred Noonan, in a Lockheed Electra, which is apparently some kind of plane, the pair commenced their 29,0000-mile flight from Miami.
Of course, they needed to stop and refuel at least a couple of times. On June 29, they landed in New Guinea, after traveling about 22,000 miles. They only had about 7,000 miles left to get back to their starting point of Oakland.
On July 2, 1937, Amelia Earhart and Fred left New Guinea for Howland Island, which was about 2,600 miles away. The flight was expected to be difficult, partially because the island was small and therefore difficult to locate.
Two US ships, hoping to help with the mission, were brightly lit and stationed between the islands to mark the route. Amelia was also in intermittent radio contact with a US Coast Guard ship near Howland Island.
Later in her journey, Amelia radioed the Coast Guard staying that she was running out of fuel. An hour later, she stated, “We are running north and south.”
And then, nothing.
The Coast Guard believed that Amelia’s plane was lost about 100 miles from Howland Island. Of course, an extensive search was performed, but it was called off on July 19, 1937. Amelia and Fred were declared lost at Sea.
Heartbreakingly, Amelia Earhart had written multiple letters and diary entries, all sent to her husband during the trip. These intimate writings were published (which I lowkey hate) in “Last Flight” in 1937.
Okay, are you ready to talk theories? Because I’ve got 5 of them.
Theory Number 1:
The official position of the US government is that Amelia and Fred crashed into the Pacific Ocean. The hypothesis is that the pair somehow traveled a little off course on their way to Howland Island. This would explain why Amelia radioed the Coast Guard, stating that they could not see the little island. It’s called the “crash-and-sink” theory: after circling for so long, trying to find the island, the plane eventually would run out of gas, plunge into the ocean, and kill Amelia and Fred. The theory is that the plane then sank, leaving no trace of anything or anyone.
Theory Number 2:
Amelia couldn’t find Howland Island, but she did find Gardner Island, which is now called Nikumaroro. At the time, this island was uninhabited. The theory is that her plane landed safely, but Amelia and Fred died on the island before they could be rescued. This hypothesis has gained more traction recently, because The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) has been investigating Nikumaroro artifacts that could have been related to Amelia’s crash. For example, they found an empty jar of her favorite freckle cream and a piece of Plexiglas that was similar to the kind that was used in the airplane she flew.
Theory Number 3:
Amelia Earhart wasn’t actually trying to be the first person to circumnavigate the globe – it was all an elaborate plan to spy on the Japanese. The Japanese then took her prisoner after the crash. This one seems far-fetched to me. President Roosevelt did authorize the two-week search for Amelia Earhart, but that doesn’t mean he enlisted her to spy on Japan. Also, her flight was highly publicized – not exactly a secret mission. Oh, and her plane never got close to Japan.
Theory Number 4:
There is one more Japanese theory, which is that Amelia crashed, was captured by Japanese military, was held prisoner on Saipan, and then died. This one may actually have some credence behind it. In 2017, a photo emerged from the Office of Naval Intelligence. It depicts a ship towing a barge with a plane on the back. This plane could be the Electra piloted by Amelia Earhart. There are multiple people on the dock in this photo, and some believe that two of those people are Amelia and Fred. Also, some people living on the Marshall Islands claim they saw the plane land and then saw Amelia and Fred in Japanese custody. Former Executive Assistant Director of the FBI, Shawn Henry, led this investigation and believes this theory to be true, so this one seems more likely than the previous theory about her being a spy.
To piggy bank off of this one, there was a rumor that after she was captured by the Japanese, Amelia started spreading Japanese propaganda on the radio as one of the collective group of women called “Tokyo Rose.” Amelia’s Husband George Putnam listened to hours of radio broadcast, but he never recognized her voice.
Theory Number 5:
The plane crashed into the Pacific, but Amelia Earhart survived. She was secretly moved to New Jersey and lived out the rest of her life under an assumed name. This one would play off the idea that she was captured by the Japanese and imprisoned, but then America rescued her and repatriated her to New Jersey. She lived the rest of her life as Irene Bolam, and she became a banker. Apparently, there was a book about this, which Irene Bolam found out about and sued. This one seems like an author who was weirdly stalking a banker wanted to sell books.
There are a few other theories about Amelia ending up on other islands, because people saw someone who kind of maybe looked like her… you know, if they squinted. And plane parts have been found on islands thousands of miles away from where she was thought to have crashed, which also doesn’t seem likely because she radioed the coast guard saying she was low on fuel.
I’ve said this on the podcast multiple times – our brains love a complete story, and I think there is a part of us that want to believe that Amelia Earhart survived somehow, because she was such an inspirational woman and the idea that she just disappeared is hard to fathom.
I’ll let everyone draw their own conclusions, but that is the story of the amazing life and horrible disappearance of Amelia Earhart.
Story 2 – Deborah Kiley
This story starts with a group of young adults who were hired to take an 58 foot yacht which was called The Trashman, yes you heard that right, to transfer it from Maine to its new owners in Florida. So, the group was led by Deborah Kiley, who was the one who was tasked with putting the crew together.
Deborah was a super confident sailor. By the time she was 23, she had years of experience crewing yachts. She even earned a big break sailing in the 43,500 mile Whitbread Round the World Race (which is now called The Ocean Race). This is a race that is pretty insane – reminds me of the whole climbing Everest thing… too much. Too intense.
The race is essentially a yacht race around the world. The route changes to accommodate various ports, but usually departs Europe in October, and generally has 9 or 10 legs, with in-port races at many of the stopover cities. Each of the entries has a sailing crew who race day and night for more than 20 days at a time on some of the legs – generally over 100 days in total. Crews usually range between 7 and 10 people and they have to minimize the weight of the boat for speed so they usually only bring one change of clothes and freeze-dried food. Throughout the trip the crews are subjected to temperature variations from 23 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
Anywho, in 1981, Kiley became the first American woman to complete the event. So, her sailing future appeared super promising.
So, in 1982, Deborah met up with Captain John Lippoth and his girlfriend Meg Mooney in Bar Harbor, Maine. They were joined by a yachtsman named Brad Cavanagh and an Englishman named Mark Adams. The weather was great the day they took off and the group was looking forward to a six day, 1,300-mile “road trip”. As she said, “The weather was beautiful, the boat was fun to steer. It doesn’t get much better than that.”
They set out on their trip and things were going as planned, but when the second day rolled around the weather took a turn and by night time the yacht encountered a tropical storm. This… was not great. They were being hit by 30-foot waves and 70 mph winds; but the Captain was fast asleep because he had partied a little too hard that day and was drunk at the wheel.
Listen, just because there aren’t other vehicles on this freeway doesn’t mean you can drink and drive buddy! Didn’t anyone learn anything from Titanic?!
So, it’s the middle of the night and Deborah wakes up suddenly because she starts hearing people talking loudly and panicking – and ice cold water is pouring into her cabin. The boat… was freaking capsizing. Getting tossed about in the water like a rag doll. It was NOT good.
And then, Meg, the Captain’s girlfriend, fell as she was tossed about and she hit her leg on some rigging on the boat and cut her leg super badly. We’re talking lots of blood.
At this point on their journey they were off the coast of North Carolina and they were going down fast, so the only real option at this point… was to basically throw themselves into the ocean. Talk about my worst freaking nightmare. Luckily, Mark Adams was a quick thinker and he found a small, rubber dinghy raft that he blew up. The boat was only 11 foot long – barely long enough for all five of them to fit in comfortably – but it would have to suffice.
They threw the boat into the water, jumped off the quickly sinking yacht, and started climbing into the raft. As they climbed, something utterly terrible happened… Adam suddenly felt… a nudge on his leg.
As they looked around at the water they realized there were hundreds of SHARKS surrounding their tiny raft. And not just sharks… great white sharks.
Deborah reported later that it was like the minute they got into the boat there were fins surrounding the dinghy. They were everywhere. They had smelled the blood that was pouring from Meg’s open wound and they had all come from miles around to feast on whatever flesh they could find.
Some quick fun facts about Great White Sharks, by the way:
- Great white sharks are found in coastal waters all over the world.
- They have over 300 teeth, and can travel at an incredible 60 mph – making them one of the most dangerous predators in the ocean.
- On average, there are between 5-10 great white shark attacks on humans every year.
- They have an incredible sense of smell – if there was only one drop of blood in 100 liters of water, a great white would smell it.
- Great whites can live for 70 years.
- The great white shark is one of only a few sharks known to regularly lift its head above the sea surface to gaze at other objects such as prey.
Anywho, back to the horrifying moment at hand. One of the sharks grabbed the rope on the front of the boat and started pulling it along in the water – talk about a terrifying joy ride. That didn’t do anything, so they started nudging and ramming the boat.
Luckily, they sharks did not get the boat tipped over. Thank god. But, they also… didn’t go away. Night came and went and the five people were all chillin on this tiny raft, still surrounded by sharks who were essentially mosh pitting around the boat just waiting for someone to make a mistake. Like dogs under dinner tables.
A day or two passed and the group was not doing well. Megan’s leg was oozing and bleeding nonstop and she was in horrific pain. Deborah, on the other hand, resolved to stay focused. She was a master sailor after-all and had done the around the world kind of trips before. So, she covered her body in seaweed for warmth, she recited prayers, she just tried to stay calm.
Unfortunately, by day three, everyone was pretty dehydrated and out of desperation, Captain Lippoth and Mark Adams started drinking from the ocean. We all know this is a bad move and in different circumstances, both men would likely have known this and respected this information. But, again, they were delirious.
But – when you drink salt water you actually get more dehydrated. This happens because the human kidney can only make urine that is less salty than salt water. Therefore, to get rid of all the excess salt taken in by drinking seawater, you have to pee more water than you drank. So you just get thirstier and thirstier and eventually, you die of dehydration.
Anywho, remember how I said that the sharks were just waiting for someone to make an error? Sadly, the drunk Captain Lippoth was the first to make one. Suddenly he became convinced that he saw land and was just straight up hallucinating; suddenly, without warning, he threw himself overboard in an attempt to swim to the “land” that he saw.
His fate was sealed immediately because the most horrifying thing happened. The sharks… attacked. As Deborah reported, “All of a sudden, they just heard this shrill, blood-curdling scream. And then it was over, silence. There was no crying, nothing. There was no doubt what got him. The sharks got him.
Shortly after that, Mark Adams suffered a similar fate. He was babbling incoherently on the boat, talking about how he needed to head to the shop to buy beer and cigarettes. Deborah and Brad were begging him to see that this was insane and that they were in the middle of the ocean. They pleaded with him to be rational. But, just like that – despite having seen his crew mate eaten alive by sharks – Mark also stepped off the boat and into the water.
Deborah, Meg and Brad – the three remaining people on the raft – literally watched as sharks ate Mark alive. They were absolutely frenzied and even butted the raft back and forth while they attacked – almost tipping it over. Luckily, it stayed upright somehow.
Unfortunately, the terrible event was not over yet. You see, Meg’s wounds were really, really bad. There was urine and the blood and pus sloshing around on the floor of the raft and Deborah and Brad even started getting little infections all over their bodies because of the disease that was coming from her. Then blood poisoning began spreading through her body. This is essentially sepsis, if that term means something more to anyone. It’s not really poison, it’s bacterial infection. It causes fever, shortness of breath, confusion, and essentially the body just starts to shut down.
She was literally dying before their eyes, but there was nothing they could do to help. Eventually she died – and Brad and Deborah actually thought about eating her for a while, they were starving after all, but Deborah was level-headed and she reminded Brad that Meg’s body was rife with scurvy – lol ok, not scurvy, but you know, she was not good eating material.
So, the two remaining survivors decided they had to get their friend’s corpse off the boat because they didn’t want to continue getting infections from her and had no idea how much longer they’d be on the raft. So, they undressed her so that they could give her clothes and jewelry to her family – if they survived.
Deborah said that it was a very sad moment. They didn’t want to just push her off; she needed a funeral of sorts. So, they did what they could. They said the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 23 and then they gently pushed her body overboard.
By this time, Brad and Deborah were alone and they had been floating at sea for five days. Now that Meg was off the boat they decided they needed to try to clean. Get that pus and nastiness out of the raft. But, in another horrific moment, Brad actually slipped and fell into the shark infested waters while cleaning.
Neither of them were strong at this point – they were both super weak from starvation and dehydration and Deborah broke down as Brad was struggling to get back in the boat. She thought Brad was absolutely doomed, but with a surge of adrenaline he managed to pull himself in and then, just moments later joy swept over both of them because off in the distance, on the horizon, they saw a cargo ship.
Brad and Deborah FREAKED OUT, obviously, and started waving frantically at the crew – which turned out to be Russian. They waved back and threw a life ring into the water inches from the boat. They bravely jumped into the water and clung to the ring and the ship pulled them aboard.
I’m not sure how they knew the sharks wouldn’t attack, but maybe with a big boat nearby they kind of dissipated.
When they were picked up by the Russian cargo ship they were about 87 milessouth of Cape Lookout, which was nearly 93 miles off course.
“I didn’t care who these people were or where we were going,” said Deborah. “I was there and Brad was there and we were alive.”
They were saved after five full days in the Atlantic Ocean. After watching two of their friends eaten alive by sharks and another die slowly from disease. This obviously is insanely traumatic and changed their lives forever. Brad actually did eventually go back to his life as a yachtsman, but Deborah said it took years for her to stop hearing her friends’ screams as the sharks ate them. She couldn’t go back to her world as it used to be.
So, after I am sure years of intensive therapy, she eventually became a motivational speaker and penned two books about her ordeal. Albatross: The True Story of a Woman’s Survival at Sea (1994) and No Victims Only Survivors: Ten Lessons for Survival (2006).
She got married twice and had two children. Sadly, in a very, very cruel twist of irony, her son drowned when he was 23. And then, when she was 54, she died at home in Mexico. The cause of death was not made public.