Home » Aviation » William Rankin is One of Two People to Have Ever Survived Falling Through a Thunderstorm Cloud. He Fell for Almost 40 Minutes, Suffered Serious Injuries, Including Frosbite.
Thunderstorm Cloud Survivor

William Rankin is One of Two People to Have Ever Survived Falling Through a Thunderstorm Cloud. He Fell for Almost 40 Minutes, Suffered Serious Injuries, Including Frosbite.

Skydiving, also known as parachuting, is a parachute’s recreational or competitive use to slow a diver’s descent to the ground after jumping from an airplane or other high place. But did you know about the Marine who survived a 40-Minute fall? 

William Rankin was one of only two people in history who survived falling through a thunderstorm cloud. He’d fall for nearly 40 minutes, sustaining frostbite, welts, and other serious injuries.

The Power Failure

When Marine Lt. Col. William Henry Rankin ejected from his F-8 Crusader at 40,000 feet after it malfunctioned, it didn’t appear that things could get any worse. He then plummeted through a raging thunderstorm.

On July 26, 1959, Rankin and his wingman, Navy Lt. Herbert Nolan, were on a high-altitude flight along the Carolina coast. The pair of F-8 Crusaders, nicknamed “candy stripers” because of their distinctive silver-grey and orange coloring, flew at 47,000 feet.

The flight was uneventful. The only potential issue was the approaching storm, which they would have to fly through before landing at the Marine air station in Beaufort, South Carolina.

Two US Vought F-8C Crusader fighters Marine Corps fighter squadron VMF-333 Fighting Shamrocks. Photo courtesy of the United States Navy. Things took nine miles up and minutes away from the air station.

Rankin’s engine abruptly shut down. He tried everything he could to keep his plane from nose-diving and gaining speed, but it didn’t work. Rankin’s instincts, honed over 100 combat missions during WWII and the Korean War, told him what he needed to do.

Power failure. May have to eject.

Herbert Nolan, Navy Lieutenant 

(Source: Task and Purpose

The Free Falling from 40,000 Feet

It was going to be difficult. Rankin activated the ejection sequence by pulling the overhead handles, and he was in the air moments later as his plane descended into the clouds below.

Rankin was now free falling from a height of 40,000 feet. The temperature was -65 degrees Fahrenheit, and the altitude caused severe decompression.

I had a terrible feeling like my abdomen was bloated twice its size. My nose seemed to explode. For 30 seconds I thought the decompression had me,” Rankin told Time Magazine in an August 1959 article about the ordeal. “It was a shocking cold all over. My ankles and wrists began to burn as though somebody had put dry ice on my skin. My left hand went numb. I had lost that glove when I went out.

William Rankin, US Marine

Rankin’s parachute was set to deploy automatically at 10,000 feet, and he knew he couldn’t open it sooner. He would most likely die before reaching the ground due to the combination of freezing temperatures, decompression, and a lack of oxygen.

Rankin plummeted through the air into the storm he had been soaring over just minutes before.

He was startled when his chute unexpectedly opened. He was now in the grip of a thunderstorm. As lightning crackled and snapped around him, the muscular 39-year-old fighter pilot and weightlifter was tossed around like a ragdoll.

On several occasions, the wind tossed Rankin around and came perilously close to becoming entangled in his chute. Because of the decompression, he was bleeding from his eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. He became nauseous and puked at one point.

Finally, after an eternity, Rankin descended through the storm toward safety. All he had to do now was land safely.

Swept by solid winds, Rankin’s chute became entangled in branches, and he crashed headfirst into a tree trunk. He staggered to his feet, regained his bearings, and discovered a backcountry road after a few minutes of searching. He was flagged down by a passing car and taken to a nearby store, where an ambulance was summoned. The entire ordeal took 40 minutes.

Considering what he went through, Rankin’s injuries were minor. Rankin later wrote a book about his experiences. He retired from the Marine Corps in 1964 and died in Oakdale, Pennsylvania, in 2009, but his legacy lives on. (Source: Task and Purpose)

Image from Task and Purpose

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