Into the Thunderhead

Lt. Col. William Rankin

Lt. Col. William Rankin

Pittsburgh native William Rankin enlisted in the US Marine Corps at the age of 19 and earned a field commission while serving in Funafuti, in what is now Tuvalu, during World War II.  After completing flight training, he later served in the “Devil Cats” of Marine Attack Squadron 212 during the Korean conflict, completing more than 50 missions and earning the Distinguished Flying Cross twice.  He was soon promoted to Lt. Colonel and in 1957, he took command of Marine Fighter Squadron 122, which then adopted the single-seat, single-engine Chance-Vought F8U Crusader as its primary aircraft.

On Saturday, July 25, 1959, Lt. Col. Rankin gave a routine high-altitude navigation check to fellow pilot Lt. Herbert Nolan of the US Navy. Their flight plan took them from Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in South Carolina, north along the Atlantic coast to Weymouth Naval Air Station in Massachusetts, where they remained overnight. On their return trip the following day, the pair encountered an unusually high cumulonimbus cloud, or ‘thunderhead’.  As experienced pilots, Rankin and Nolan both knew the unmistakable dangers of the tall, powerful storm clouds; their classic anvil shape and furious natures are commonly associated with pounding rains, destructive winds, and tornadoes.  However, having previously confirmed with meteorologists that there was no frontal activity in the area, the two pilots climbed up to 48,000 feet to fly over the isolated storm.

The Chance-Vought F8U Crusader

The Chance-Vought F8U Crusader

However, at almost exactly 6:00 p.m., while directly above the towering cloud, Lt. Col. Rankin heard a thump from beneath and behind his seat, followed by a rumbling sound, and the fire warning light on his dashboard blinked on.  He reflexively reduced power to the throttle and radioed his partner that he was experiencing engine trouble.  His concern was justified; low oil pressure had caused the pistons in his Crusader to overheat and expand, causing the engine to seize, and it lost 90% of its power within the following six seconds.  Without power from the engine, the aircraft also lost use of all of its systems relying on electricity or hydraulics, prohibiting Rankin from turning or diving and raising the very real possibility of a wild spin from which he would not be able to recover.  He reached down to pull the emergency power turbine handle, but it snapped off in his hand.

Lt. Col. Rankin realized that ejecting remained his only option.  He was nearly ten miles up and traveling at about 630 miles per hour, and the outside temperature measured about 75 degrees below zero.  Frostbite was a near certainty, as Rankin wore only a summer flying suit, regular shoes, and a helmet and gloves; at that altitude, he also knew that decompression may cause his blood to literally boil, especially if he suffered a cut on the way out.  Nevertheless, with his other options eliminated, he reached up and pulled the twin ejection handles, blowing the canopy and casting him and his seat into the upper limits of the troposphere.

A classic cumulonimbus cloud, showing its distinctive anvil shape

A classic cumulonimbus cloud, showing its distinctive anvil shape

Immediately, the severe cold pummeled the pilot, burning and tingling as if he were impaled by millions of pins, and he suffered instant frostbite in his arms and legs.  The dangerously low pressure caused his internal organs to expand within his body, and his abdomen swelled up as if he were heavily pregnant; blood spurted from his eyes, ears, nose, and mouth.  The distension inflicted upon him savage cramps, and his head felt as if it were about to burst.

Thankfully, Rankin’s body numbed after a moment.  After he separated from his seat, he floated in a period of relative peace for the first five minutes or so, experiencing no sensation of falling as he spotted what looked like fluffy, placid, approaching clouds.  With his numb left hand, he held onto his helmet, as his speed and pinwheeling motion had pulled it back on his head.  He managed to activate his emergency oxygen supply, and with his bare right hand—for the wind had torn that glove away—he held his mask to his face.

When he reached 10,000 feet, Rankin’s automatic chute opened, to his great relief; reaching up, he tugged on the risers, and their tension told him that he had a good chute.  His emergency oxygen soon depleted, so he released and discarded his collapsed mask and found—again, to great relief—that he could breathe, though exhaling proved difficult and the rushing wind constantly attempted to force too much air into his lungs.  Although still bleeding, he found himself oddly comfortable right up until the point where he entered the thunderstorm itself.

The turbulent and chaotic winds of the active and violent thunderstorm buffeted him about in all directions—up and down, side to side, spinning around on all three axes—“as though a monstrous cat had caught me by the neck.”  Hail the size of walnuts pelted and bruised his body, intense waterfalls of rain assailed him with such intensity that he nearly drowned, and his visibility dropped to zero; at times, he couldn’t even see the canopy of his chute, which still fluttered just over his head.  Blue scissor blades of lightning several feet wide flashed around him on all sides, nearly blinding the functionally helpless pilot even as he held his eyes closed, and the booming thunder shook his entire body to the core.  As he descended, he caught a glimpse of an updraft of black air roaring toward him from below with tremendous velocity, a “tidal wave of air, a massive blast, as though forged under tremendous compression, aimed and fired at me with the savagery of a cannon.”  The massive ram of air propelled him back up toward the sky for 6,000 feet.  At one point, lightning sliced through his parachute, lighting up the canopy like a cathedral, and Lt. Col. Rankin thought for a moment that he had died.

Ultimately, the pull of gravity overtook the force of the air, and Rankin—still within the cloud—began to fall to earth once more, only to be later caught by another updraft and once again hurled skyward.  On the way up, his canopy sometimes collapsed and cover him like a shroud, only to have it blossom again as he fell back toward the ground.  The buffeted pilot lost track of how many times he was tossed up and down, though at one point he oddly noticed that he could still see the luminous dial of his watch, which at the time read 6:15 p.m.  His head spun from vertigo, and he got violently sick several times.

Eventually the skies calmed or twisted in just the right combination that Rankin descended below the bottom level of the storm, depositing him at the altitude of only about 550 feet, a dangerously low level for a safe landing.  He spotted an open field and tried to aim for it, but a strong 25 knot surface wind dragged him sideways into a copse of pine trees.  Rankin’s chute caught in some branches and he swung up like a child on a swing; spinning back toward the trees, he collided violently with a sturdy trunk; the impact to his head, face, and left shoulder knocked off his helmet and left him dazed.  He slid to the ground and once again checked his watch; the time read a little after 6:40 p.m.  Rankin had been in the deadly loop of updrafts and downdrafts for about 40 minutes, in a jump that normally would have lasted about 13.

Not long thereafter, local farmer Judson Dunning, along with his wife, three sons, and a teenaged cousin, spotted Lt. Col. Rankin stumbling from a cornfield along State Highway Route 305 near the tiny hamlet of Rich Square in northeastern North Carolina.  From the driver’s seat of his car, Dunning saw a man caked with blood, in torn and tattered clothes, and—as the pilot had drawn his military-issue jungle knife in order to chop through the rows of corn—brandishing what must have looked like a machete; Dunning kept driving, as had about another dozen cars before him.  However, one of his sons, spotting the pilot out of the back window of their sedan, recognized Rankin’s flight suit and shouted to his father that the man on the road was one of their jet pilots.  Dunning acquiesced to his son’s cries, and stopped the car; rushing to his aid, the family reached Rankin just as the pilot dropped to his knees, battered and exhausted from his ordeal.

Rankin was soon admitted to a nearby hospital.  The Dunning family later retraced Rankin’s path and retrieved the rest of his gear from his landing site among the pine trees; in gratitude, Rankin gifted his helmet to the three brothers who recovered him from the roadside.  Rankin’s pilotless plane crashed and exploded in a nearby pea field, leaving a 20-foot crater but causing no injuries.  After recovering from shock, frostbite, and a few broken bones, Rankin returned to flight duties with no long-term effects; in 1961, he authored a book telling of his ordeal.  Lt. Col. Rankin lived for another 50 years, passing away in 2009 at the age of 88.

Links and Sources:
The Man Who Rode the Thunder, by William Rankin, Prentice Hall, 1961, available here.
1001 Questions Answered About: Hurricanes, Tornadoes and Other Air Disasters, by Barbara Tufty, Dover Publications, 2012. 
The Cloudspotter’s Guide: The Science, History, and Culture of Clouds, by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, Perigee Books, 2007.
Baling Out: Amazing Dramas of Military Flying, by Robert Jackson, Pen & Sword, 2006.
Photo of F8U Crusader from Lance Nix via Flickr.
Photo of skydiver in thunderstorm from

“Into the Thunderhead” © 2016 by James Husband