Lieutenant Colonel William Henry Rankin (October 16, 1920 - Pittsburgh — July 6, 2009 - Oakdale) 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 Crusader jet fighter over a cumulonimbus cloud when the engine failed, forcing him to eject and parachute into the cloud. Lieutenant Colonel Rankin wrote a book about his experience, The Man Who Rode the Thunder.
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 prematurely instead of at 10,000 feet due to the storm affecting the barometric parachute switch to open. 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. His watch read 6:40 pm. It had been 40 minutes since he ejected. He searched for help and eventually was admitted into a hospital at Ahoskie, North Carolina. He suffered from frostbite, welts, bruises, and severe decompression.
In popular culture
Rankin wrote The Man Who Rode the Thunder about his experience; Floyd C. Gale called the book a "thrilling true adventure". His story was covered in the March 2, 2017 episode of The Dollop Podcast.
- Pretor-Pinney, Gavin. The Cloudspotter's Guide. The Cloud Appreciation Society. pp. 320 pg. ISBN 0-340-89589-6.
- "Rankin's F8U Crusader". Check-Six.com. July 17, 2015.
- Rankin, William. The Man Who Rode the Thunder. Prentice Hall. pp. 220 pg. ISBN 0-13-548271-2.
- "HEROES: The Nightmare Fall". Time. August 17, 1959.
- "Rider on the Storm". www.damninteresting.com. Retrieved 2016-07-26.
- Gale, Floyd C. (October 1961). "Galaxy's 5 Star Shelf". Galaxy Science Fiction. pp. 173–177.
- "The Dollop with David Anthony and Gareth Reynolds".