The Man Who Rode the Thunder

On July 26th, 1959; USMC Lieutenant Colonel William Henry Rankin (October 16, 1920 - July 6, 2009) was climbing his F-8 Crusader jet fighter to 47,000 feet at Mach .82 over a monstrous cumulonimbus cloud that peaked at 45,000 feet when he heard a loud bump and rumble from the engine. The engine stopped producing power, and a fire warning light illuminated. Rankin immediately pulled the lever to deploy auxiliary power, which broke off in his hand.

Not wearing a pressure suit, at 6:00 pm Rankin ejected into the −50 °C air over the top of the thunderhead anvil. He suffered immediate frostbite, and painful decompression caused his eyes, ears, nose, and mouth to bleed, and his abdomen swelled. Thankfully, he did, manage to make use of his emergency oxygen supply.

Now over five minutes free falling since he abandoned his aircraft, his parachute hadn't yet opened. Unfortunately for Lt Col Rankin, the situation was about to get even worse...While in the upper regions of the thundercloud, with near-zero vis, in the core of a fully developed thunderstorm, the parachute opened prematurely instead of at 10,000 feet, due to the storm's erratic pressures messing with the barometric parachute switch to open.

After ten minutes, Rankin was still aloft and climbing, carried by updrafts and getting hit by hailstones. Violent spinning and pounding caused him to vomit. Lightning surrounded him, which he described as blue blades several feet thick, and thunder that he could feel. The rain was so strong that it forced him to hold his breath to keep from drowning.

40 minutes after he ejected...Lt Col Rankin's chute emerged from the clouds and safely settled on the ground below.

USMC Lieutenant Colonel William Henry Rankin became the first person to successfully, although unwillingly perform a parachute descent through the centre of a Thunderstorm.
The record currently stands at 45,000 feet. Any takers to the challenge?

“In reference to flying through thunderstorms; "A pilot may earn his full pay for that year in less than two minutes. At the time of incident, he would gladly return the entire amount for the privilege of being elsewhere.”
Ernest K. Gann






  • Richard

    to Hugh; it was a few years ago, during the paragliding world cup in Australia.. at the top of the cunimb she was unconscious… up to the ground! A Japanese pilot died in the same conditions

  • Michael Paul

    Del Charles Toedt (later he changed it to Tate)
    was an Air Force pilot from Laurel, Iowa (a neighbor of mine.). While flying his Jet, he was.forced to bailout at 10,000 feet. His.
    whites failed to open and he fell through a tree and landed on his back in a plowed field.
    His only lasting injury was some kidney discomfort during his remaining years.

  • Ben Mcalister

    I read and reread the book almost 60 years ago ….

  • Ian

    Wonder how long his O2 tank was good for? AMAZING he made it out/on the ground ok.
    Thank You For Your Service Lt-Col Rankin!

  • mike

    Where did this occur, I remember something like this over southern Va and northern NC

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