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Emergency ejection results in 40-minute ordeal as pilot is flung about inside a thunderstorm cloud.

A Vought F8U-1 Crusader at Naval Air Station China Lake, California

The next time you feel like complaining about turbulence while flying aboard a commercial airline, consider the situation Lieutenant Colonel William Henry Rankin survived after ejecting from his F-8 jet fighter that was flying Mach .82, at 47,000 feet, above a thunderstorm. To date, Rankin is the only known person to survive a fall through a cumulonimbus thunderstorm cloud.  He paid one heck of a price for his adventure.

Fire forces William Henry Rankin to eject from F-8 fighter above a thunderstorm

On July 26, 1959, Rankin was flying from Naval Air Station South in Weymouth, Massachusetts to Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort, South Carolina. Seeing that he was approaching a thunderstorm ahead, he increased the speed of his F-8 Crusader jet to over 600 MPH and climbed to 47,000 feet in order to pass safely above the thunderstorm cloud. Suddenly, Rankin heard a loud bang, his engine rumbled briefly, then stopped. The fire warning light lit up and Rankin knew that he must deploy auxiliary power to stay aloft. He pulled the lever and as if things could go no worse, the lever broke off in his hand. Although he was not wearing a pressure flight suit at the time, he had no choice but to eject from the aircraft into the thunderstorm below. At exactly 6:00 PM, he pulled the large red button and ejected into the frigid, -58-degree Fahrenheit air.

Tumbling through a thunderstorm cloud

The high-altitude cold air froze his skin immediately causing severe frostbite burns.  The sudden decompression forced blood to shoot out through his mouth, nose, ears, and eyes. His stomach instantly expanded to an inhuman size. Despite the great pain, he was able to place the emergency oxygen supply over his mouth as he plummeted toward the ground below.

After about five minutes, while in the upper regions of the thunderstorm cloud, his parachute deployed. Visibility was near zero with bolts of lightning providing only intermittent illumination for the terrifying trip down. While being carried aloft by updrafts for over 30 minutes, Rankin was pounded by hailstones and was forced to hold his breath to keep from drowning in the rain. Lightning flashed all around him, which he described as blue blades several feet thick, and he was spun about so violently that he vomited several times. Finally, the storm calmed, and Rankin descended into a quiet forest. His watch read 6:40 PM. He had been held aloft by updrafts, pounded inside the eye of the storm cloud, for 40 minutes.

The aftermath

On the ground, Rankin traveled in a zig-zag path until he found a small dirt road where a passerby picked up the bruised and battered pilot. Rankin was driven to a hospital at Ahoskie, North Carolina. He suffered from frostbite, welts, bruises, and severe decompression shock (surprisingly good shape given the conditions he was thrown into).  He spent about three weeks in the hospital.

Rankin wrote a true account of his personal experience, “The Man Who Rode the Thunder”.

Image Credits

In-Article Image Credits

A Vought F8U-1 Crusader at Naval Air Station China Lake, California via Wikimedia Commons by US Navy with usage type - Public Domain

Featured Image Credit

A Vought F8U-1 Crusader at Naval Air Station China Lake, California via Wikimedia Commons by US Navy with usage type - Public Domain


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