Lieutenant Colonel William H. Rankin fell from 47,000 feet into “one of the most violent storms ever recorded on the East Coast,” parachuted over 65 miles in 40 minutes, and came to a stop by colliding with a tree.
Lieutenant Colonel William H. Rankin (Oct. 6, 1920– Jul. 6, 2009) was a U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) pilot and veteran of both World War II and Korea when a Cold War accident literally catapulted him to fame. On Jul. 27, 1959, the engine of his F-8 Crusader, the famed carrier-based jet fighter known as ‘the last of the gunfighters,’ suddenly stalled and the fire warning light on his instrument panel began flashing. Rankin triggered his ejection seat, which shot him through his plane’s cockpit canopy. He was flying at an altitude exceeding 47,000 feet, without a pressure suit—and he exited the plane at the top of a gigantic thunderstorm cloud mass. His harrowing experience riding the thunder down has few parallels; if it were fiction, it would be hard to believe.
“I was convinced I would not survive; no human could”, Rankin remembers in his book The Man Who Rode the Thunder. He fell from 47,000 feet into “one of the most violent storms ever recorded on the East Coast,” parachuted over 65 miles in 40 minutes, and came to a stop by colliding with a tree.
He remembered: “I was terrified, but not petrified. It’s a brave distinction of terms.”
According to Huckberry, Rankin suffered frostbite, decompression, vomiting, extreme abdominal swelling (“as though I were in well advanced pregnancy,” he pointed out), a severed finger, and bruises. Once grounded, he walked to a dirt road and hitchhiked to the hospital. “I was not panicky,” he understated.
Rankin was flying his F-8 Crusader over Norfolk, VA, when a fire warning flashed on the instrument panel. Fearing explosion, he ejected—nine miles above the earth. The next forty minutes were hell. After free-falling in the -50°F air, Rankin deployed his chute in the middle of a thunderstorm.
Hail the size of baseballs beat him to near unconsciousness. “I thought I had died.” And Rankin nearly did.
An untimely gust of wind forced his chute to entangle his body and he reentered a free-fall. He remembered, “I had the distinct feeling that I was being sliced in two, as fate rallied against him.”
Then, suddenly, the winds shifted. His chute reopened. Soon, he found himself gliding out of the storm toward a forest. After entangling in a tree, he cut away and arrived on the ground, “lying on my left side. I simply could not believe that I was on the earth—that I had survived.”
Rankin’s bout with the thunderstorm brought him national attention, especially when he returned, a few weeks later, to active duty. He enjoyed fifty more years of life, dying at 89.
Now, his legend lives on—he’s the only guy to fight and beat a thunderstorm, and he’s earned the right to say (without irony): “I didn’t hear the thunder, I felt it.”
The following video is a recap of Rankin’s flight.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy