The year was 1959. Lt Colonel William Rankin, an experienced and veteran pilot of both World War II and Korea, was flying his F-8 Crusader on a routine flight from South Weymouth Naval Air Station, Massachusetts to Beaufort, North Carolina with his wing-man Lt. Herbert Nolan. At an altitude of 47,000 feet and a speed of Mach .82, they were avoiding the turbulent weather below, common in the area during the summer months. They where just minutes away from the start of their descent when trouble forced the 39-year old Lt Colonel William Rankin to do the unthinkable. It was just after 6:00 pm and darkness was starting to set in.
Just prior to their decent into Beaufort, Rankin heard a series of very loud grinding noises coming from his single engine jet. This caused a severe loss in power, the fire indication light to illuminate and the entire instrument panel to darken. Fearing a power failure, he pulled the auxiliary deployment power handle, only to have it break off in his hand. After repeated failures to restart the engine, the F-8 Crusader entered a rapid descent at near super-sonic speeds. Having lost complete control of his aircraft, Lt Colonel Rankin determined his aircraft was unrecoverable and had but one option left; eject. He then matter-of-factually radioed to Lt Nolan that he “may have to eject”. Nolan watched helplessly as Colonel Rankin rocket away from his aircraft and descended into the dark ominous thunderstorm below.
Rankin knew ejecting into the -50°C temperature without a pressure suit at such an altitude would be incredibly discomforting, and quite possibly fatal. The sudden decompression caused his stomach to swell, his ears, nose and mouth to bleed, and the only thing keeping him conscious was the O2 canister attached to his helmet. But he had no other choice. As the cockpit hatch blew open, the immense forces involved with ejecting tore his left glove from his hand, leaving it exposed to the brutally cold air. His skin immediately froze resulting in numbness and severe frostbite. Unbeknownst to him, this was the least of his concerns, for he was about to endure 40 minutes of abuse no man should have ever survived.
Being an experienced skydiver, Lt Colonel Rankin knew it would take approximately 3.5 minutes to reach 10,000 feet having ejected at an altitude of around 50,000 feet. Upon looking at his watch, he realized nearly 4.5 minutes had passed, and fearing the automatic switch to open his parachute had malfunctioned, he was left with no choice but to contemplate a manual deployment of his parachute. Little did he know, it wasn’t the automatic switch that had failed, but he hadn’t yet descended from the thunderstorm to a low enough altitude in order to trigger the switch. His descent was being slowed by the powerful thunderstorm updraft, much like a hailstone. With near zero visibility due to the pitch black darkness (the only light coming from the lightning flashes) and unable to see the ground, it was impossible for Rankin to know his altitude. The Colonel made the decision to pull the rip cord, deploying his parachute.
As the parachute opened, he felt the familiar tug upwards. Except instead of a slow descent, he experienced a rapid ascent. The powerful updraft filled his parachute like a sail and rocketed him vertically thousands of feet at a velocity of nearly 100 mph. During his ascent, he could see hail stones forming around him. The lightning was described by him as “blue blades several feet thick” and incredibly close. The thunder was so loud, he could feel it resonating in his chest cavity and remembered this more so than how loud it was. At one point, the lightning lit up his parachute leading him to believe he had died. The rain would pelt him from all directions, and at times was so intense, he had to hold his breath for fear of drowning. But this was only half the agony — the other half being the downdrafts.
Once the updraft exhausted itself, the associated downdraft would ensue. It was during this phase of his journey that he truly thought he would die. His parachute would collapse around him, much like a wet blanket, and plunge him into a rapid free fall towards earth. The odds of his parachute re-inflating correctly were slim, but not only did it do so once, it did numerous times through a multitude of updraft and downdraft cycles.
What seemed like an eternity later, Colonel Rankin noticed the violent updraft and downdraft cycles were becoming less intense and the rain was consistently falling from above instead of pelting him from every direction. He was also starting to regain sensation in his frozen limbs, indicating the temperature was starting to warm. A few moments later, he descended from beneath the thunderstorm and found himself above the flat uninhabited expanse of North Carolina. However, the thunderstorm wasn’t quite finished and with one last dying breath, a gust of wind blew Colonel Rankin into a tree and thicket of bushes were his parachute became ensnared. Upon looking at his watch, approximately 40 minutes had passed since he first ejected from his F-8 Crusader. His journey had come to an end, or so he thought.
Colonel Rankin had landed in a desolate field. Using his Marine survival skills, Rankin walked a zig-zag path until he stumbled upon a dirt road. It was while on this road that numerous cars passed the wet, battered, bloodied, and vomit soaked pilot before one individual stopped to see if he needed help. Rankin was driven by the stranger to the local town of Ahoskie, NC where he used a phone to call an ambulance.
Colonel Rankin spent about 3 weeks in the hospital recovering from severe decompression shock, welts, bruising, and other superficial wounds. Surprisingly, none of which were life threatening. He eventually returned to active-duty and once again took to the skies. Colonel William Rankin passed away on July 6, 2009. He was 89 years old.
To date, Colonel Rankin is the only know human to parachute into a thunderstorm and survive. However, in 2007 Ewa Wisnierska survived a similar event in which she and her paraglider were sucked into a powerful thunderstorm in Australia while preparing for the World Paraglider Championships. She too lived to tell her story.