Meet the Marine Who ‘Rode Thunder’ and Lived to Tell the Tale
Lt. Col. William Henry Rankin was falling. Or, perhaps, a better way of describing it was that he was attempting to fall.
A pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps, Rankin was a veteran of both World War II and the Korean War. Yet it was on July 26, 1959, that Rankin came closest to death.
While flying from the naval air station at South Weymouth, Massachusetts to the Marine Corps air station in Beaufort, South Carolina, Rankin had climbed to 47,000 feet at a speed of 624 mph over Norfolk, Virginia, when his F-8 Crusader jet engine suddenly stalled and a fire warning light came on.
“Unable to get the engine restarted,” according to Business Insider, “having lost all power, and having difficulty keeping his jet from going into a complete nosedive, he opted for ejecting, despite the extreme altitude and his lack of a pressure suit.”
Ejecting into the atmosphere that was approximately -65 °F, Rankin felt instant discomfort. The rapid decompression caused his abdomen to swell and his eyes, nose, mouth and ears to bleed.
"The pain of ‘explosive’ decompression was unbearable," he continued. "I could feel my abdomen distending, stretching, stretching, stretching, until I thought it would burst. My eyes felt as though they were being ripped from their sockets, my head as if it were splitting into several parts, my ears bursting inside, and throughout my entire body there were severe cramps.”
To make matters worse, the Marine aviator had exited his jet atop a gigantic thunderstorm — a cumulonimbus tower that, according to the University of Illinois Urbana- Champaign, are responsible for "large thunderstorms whose updrafts and downdrafts are so closely in balance that such a storm can have a lifetime of several hours."
After free falling for several minutes through hail the size of baseballs that threaten to beat him into unconsciousness, Rankin became aware of another issue — his parachute’s auto-deployment system, which was supposed to deploy at 10,000 feet, seemingly malfunctioned.
"I had never known such savage pain. I was convinced I would not survive; no human could," Rankin wrote.
Eventually the auto-deploy did kick in, however, he wasn’t exactly at 10,000 feet yet.
According to Business Insider, "The barometric switch that deploys the parachute automatically had been fooled by the violent weather conditions in the storm, triggering it early."
As a result of the early deployment, several cataclysmic events took place.
With the parachute opening above 10,000 feet, the prolonging of his descent meant that there was a real possibility that Rankin could die from asphyxiation or hypothermia.
It also meant that he was perilously trapped in the storm system’s up and down draft, buffeting the aviator thousands of feet into the sky before once again dragging him back down.
"At one point I got seasick and heaved," Rankin recalled in his memoir.
To add to Rankin’s misery, the air around him, so saturated with water, threatened to drown him while in the sky.
"Gasping for air, swollen, bleeding and battered by hail, it was as though I were under a swimming pool, and I had held my breath several times," wrote Rankin.
For nearly 40 minutes this cycle continued, with flashes of thunder and lightning striking around him from every direction.
"I didn’t hear the thunder, I felt it," Rankin put it simply.
Mercifully, the fierceness of the storm began to abate, with the pilot able to at last escape the storm's drafts.
The air became noticeably warmer and the rain that threatened to once drown him became a soft summer rain.
Miraculously, Rankin was alive, his parachute intact, and he began to glide towards the forests of the North Carolina backcountry.
"As he prepared to land, the storm couldn’t resist one final poke, and the wind kicked up, flinging him into a stand of trees. His parachute became tangled up in the branches, and Rankin’s momentum carried him headfirst into the trunk of a tree," wrote Anders Clark in Disciples of Flight.
Once freed from the Pinetree’s grasp, Rankin dragged himself to a nearby road, where a driver eventually picked him up and took him to a payphone to call 911.
He spent several weeks in a hospital recovering from frostbite, severe decompression and numerous other ailments, however, despite his 40-minute ordeal in the sky, Rankin suffered no long-term physical damage and returned to active duty shortly thereafter.
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