The Man Who Rode the Thunder

Lieutenant Colonel William Henry Rankin

Lieutenant Colonel William Henry Rankin

Lieutenant Colonel William Henry Rankin (1920 — 2009) was the only known person to survive a fall from the top of a cumulonimbus thunderstorm cloud. He was a pilot in the United States Marine Corps, and a World War II and Korean War veteran. He was flying an F-8 jet fighter over a cumulonimbus cloud when the engine failed, forcing him to eject and parachute into the cloud.

On July 26, 1959, Rankin was flying from Naval Air Station South Weymouth, Massachusetts to Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in South Carolina. He climbed over a thunderhead that peaked at 45,000 feet (13,716 m), then—at 47,000 feet (14,326 m) and at mach 0.82 — he heard a loud bump and rumble from the engine. The engine stopped, and a fire warning light flashed. He pulled the lever to deploy auxiliary power, and it broke off in his hand. Though not wearing a pressure suit, at 6:00 pm he ejected into the −50 °C (−58 °F) air.

He suffered immediate frostbite, and decompression caused his eyes, ears, nose, and mouth to bleed. His abdomen swelled severely. He did, however, manage to make use of his emergency oxygen supply. Five minutes after he abandoned the plane, his parachute hadn’t opened. While in the upper regions of the thunderstorm, with near-zero visibility, the parachute opened. After ten minutes, Rankin was still aloft, carried by updrafts and getting hit by hailstones. Violent spinning and pounding caused him to vomit. Lightning appeared, which he described as blue blades several feet thick, and thunder that he could feel. The rain forced him to hold his breath to keep from drowning. One lightning bolt lit up the parachute, making Rankin believe he had died. Conditions calmed, and he descended into a forest.

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.

F-8 Crusader

F-8 Crusader

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. Rankin passed away on July 6, 2009. He was 89 years old.

Colonel William Rankin wrote a book about his experience, “The Man Who Rode the Thunder.”