In the summer of 1959, a pair of F-8 Crusader combat jets were on a routine flight to Beaufort, North Carolina with no particular designs on making history. The late afternoon sunlight glinted from the silver and orange fuselages as the US Marine Corps pilots flew high above the Carolina coast at near the speed of sound. The lead jet was piloted by 39-year-old Lieutenant Colonel William Rankin, a veteran of both World War 2 and the Korean War. In another Crusader followed his wingman, Lt Herbert Nolan. The pilots were cruising at 47,000 feet to stay above a large, surly-looking column of cumulonimbus cloud which was amassing about a half mile below them, threatening to moisten the officers upon their arrival at the air field.
Mere minutes before they were scheduled to begin their descent towards Beaufort, William Rankin heard a decreasingly reassuring series of grinding sounds coming from his aircraft’s engine. The airframe shuddered, and most of the indicator needles on his array of cockpit instruments flopped into their fluorescent orange “something is horribly wrong” regions. The engine had stopped cold. As the unpowered aircraft dipped earthward, Lt. Col. Rankin switched on his Crusader’s emergency generator to electrify his radio. “Power failure,” Rankin transmitted matter-of-factly to Nolan. “May have to eject.”
Unable to restart his engine, and struggling to keep his craft from entering a near-supersonic nose dive, Rankin grasped the two emergency eject handles. He was mindful of his extreme altitude, and of the serious discomfort that would accompany the sudden decompression of an ejection; but although he lacked a pressure suit, he knew that his oxygen mask should keep him breathing in the rarefied atmosphere nine miles up. He was also wary of the ominous gray soup of a storm that lurked below; but having previously experienced a bail out amidst enemy fire in Korea, a bit of inclement weather didn’t seem all that off-putting. At approximately 6:00pm, Lt. Col. Rankin concluded that his aircraft was unrecoverable and pulled hard on his eject handles. An explosive charge propelled him from the cockpit into the atmosphere with sufficient force to rip his left glove from his hand, scattering his canopy, pilot seat, and other plane-related debris into the sky. Bill Rankin had spent a fair amount of time skydiving in his career—both premeditated and otherwise—but this particular dive would be unlike any that he or any living person had experienced before.
As Rankin plunged toward the earth, licks of lightning darted through the massive, writhing storm cloud below him. Rankin had little attention to spare, however, given the disconcerting circumstances. The extreme cold in the upper atmosphere chilled his extremities, and the sudden change in air pressure had caused a vigorous nosebleed and an agonizing swelling in his abdomen. The discomfort was so extreme that he wondered whether the decompression effects would kill him before he reached the ground.
As the wind roared in his ears, he gasped up oxygen from his emergency breathing apparatus while resisting the urge to pull his parachute’s rip cord; its built-in barometer was designed to auto-deploy the parachute at a safe breathing altitude, and his supply of emergency oxygen was limited. Opening the chute early would prolong his descent and might result in death due to asphyxiation or hypothermia. Under normal circumstances one would expect about three and a half minutes of free-fall to reach the breathable altitude of 10,000 feet. The circumstances, however, were not normal.
After falling for a mere 10 seconds, Bill Rankin penetrated the top of the anvil-shaped storm. The dense gray cloud smothered out the summer sun, and the temperature dropped rapidly. In less than a minute the extreme cold and wind began to inflict Rankin’s extremities with frostbite; particularly his gloveless left hand. The wind was a cacophony inside his flight helmet. Freezing, injured, and unable to see more than a few feet in the murky cloud, the Lieutenant Colonel mustered all of his will to keep his hand far from the rip cord.
After falling through damp darkness for an interminable time, Rankin began to grow concerned that the automatic switch on his parachute had malfunctioned. He felt certain that he had been descending for several minutes, though he was aware that one’s sense of time is a fickle thing under such distracting circumstances. He fingered the rip cord anxiously, wondering whether to give it a yank. He’d lost all feeling in his left hand, and his other limbs weren’t faring much better. It was then that he felt a sharp and familiar upward tug on his harness—his parachute had deployed. It was too dark to see the chute’s canopy above him, but he tugged on the risers and concluded that it had indeed inflated properly. This was a welcome reprieve from the wet-and-windy free-fall.
Unfortunately for the impaired pilot, he was nowhere near the 10,000 foot altitude he expected. Strong updrafts in the cell had decreased his terminal velocity substantially, and the volatile storm had triggered his barometric parachute switch prematurely. Bill Rankin was still far from the earth, and he was now dangling helplessly in the belly of an oblivious monstrosity.
“I’d see lightning,” Rankin would later muse, “Boy, do I remember that lightning. I never exactly heard the thunder; I felt it.” Amidst the electrical spectacle, the storm’s capricious winds pressed Rankin downward until he encountered the powerful updrafts—the same updrafts that keep hailstones aloft as they accumulate ice—which dragged him and his chute thousands of feet back up into the storm. This dangerous effect is familiar to paragliding enthusiasts, who unaffectionately refer to it as cloud suck. At the apex Rankin caught up with his parachute, causing it to drape over him like a wet blanket and stir worries that he would become entangled with it and drop from the sky at a truly terminal velocity. Again he fell, and again the updrafts yanked him skyward in the darkness. He lost count of how many times this up-and-down cycle repeated. “At one point I got seasick and heaved,” he once retold.
At times the air was so saturated with suspended water that an intake of breath caused him to sputter and choke. He began to worry about the very strange—but very real—possibility of drowning in the sky. He began to feel his body being peppered by hailstones that were germinating in the pregnant storm cell, adding yet another concern: that the icy shrapnel might shred his fragile silk canopy.
Lt. Col. Rankin was uncertain how long he had been absorbing abuse when he began to notice that the violence of his undulations was ebbing. He was also beginning to regain some sensation in his numb limbs, indicating that temperatures were warming. And the rain—which had previously been splashing him from every conceivable direction—was now only falling from above.
Moments later the moist Marine emerged from the underside of the cumulonimbus cloud amidst a warm summer rain. Below was a flat expanse of North Carolina backcountry, with no immediate signs of civilization. But Rankin’s parachute was still functional, and he was just a few hundred feet from the ground, so all seemed relatively well. But the storm had one last parting gift. As Rankin neared the ground a sudden gust of wind whisked him into a thicket. Helpless, he was pushed into the branches of a tree where his parachute became ensnared, and his momentum caused him to plow headfirst into the trunk. Fortunately his flight helmet kept his brain box from taking any serious damage.
Bill Rankin removed himself from the troublesome tree and assessed his situation. The time was 6:40pm. Bill’s brutalized body had spent around forty minutes bobbing around the area of atmosphere which mountaineers refer to unfondly as the Death Zone. Applying his Marine training, Rankin started walking in a search pattern until he located a backroad. He stood at the roadside and attempted to flag down the automobiles that occasionally passed, but it took some time to find a passerby bold enough to brake for a soggy, bleeding, bruised, frost-bitten, and vomit-encrusted pilot. Finally an obliging stranger stopped and drove Rankin back to a country store in the nearby town of Ahoskie, NC where he used the phone to summon an ambulance. While he awaited its arrival he took the luxury of slumping to the floor for some much-needed rest.
In the aftermath of his ordeal Lt. Col. William Rankin spent several weeks recovering in the hospital. His injuries were surprisingly minor, however, consisting of superficial frostbite and a touch of decompression shock. He eventually returned to duty, and the following year he chronicled his perilous adventures in a now out-of-print book entitled The Man Who Rode the Thunder.
No human before or since Bill Rankin is known to have parachuted through a cumulonimbus tower and lived to tell about it. Lt. Col. William Henry Rankin passed away on 06 July 2009, almost exactly 50 years after his harrowing and history-making ride on the storm. Cue epic electric piano solo.