The Man Who Rode the Thunder

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May 14, 2013 | By Matthew Ankeny

I was convinced I would not survive; no human could. On July 26, 1959, William Rankin ejected through the glass canopy of his F-8 Crusader, fell 47,000 feet into “one of the most violent storms ever recorded on the East Coast,” parachuted over 65 miles in 40 minutes, and came to a stop by colliding with a tree.

He remembered: I was terrified, but not petrified. It’s a brave distinction of terms.

Rankin suffered frostbite, decompression, vomiting, extreme abdominal swelling (as though I were in well advanced pregnancy), a severed finger, and bruises. Once grounded, he walked to a dirt road and hitchhiked to the hospital. I was not panicky, he understated.

Rankin was flying his F-8 Crusader (the same jet with which John Glenn set a transcontinental speed record) over Norfolk, VA, when a fire warning flashed on the instrument panel. Fearing explosion, he ejected—nine miles above the earth. The next forty minutes were hell. After free-falling in the -50°F air, Rankin deployed his chute in the middle of a thunderstorm.

Hail the size of baseballs beat him to near unconsciousness. I thought I had died. And he nearly did.

An untimely gust of wind forced his chute to entangle his body and he reentered a free-fall. He remembered, I had the distinct feeling that I was being sliced in two, as fate rallied against him.

Then, suddenly, the winds shifted. His chute reopened. Soon, he found himself gliding out of the storm toward a forest. After entangling in a tree, he cut away and arrived on the ground, lying on my left side. I simply could not believe that I was on the earth—that I had survived.

Rankin’s bout with the thunderstorm brought him national attention, especially when he returned, a few weeks later, to active duty. He enjoyed fifty more years of life, dying at 89.

Now, his legend lives on—he’s the only guy to fight and beat a thunderstorm, and he’s earned the right to say (without irony): “I didn’t hear the thunder, I felt it.”

You can read an except from Rankin’s book here, or buy it on Amazon. A video recap of his flight is on YouTube and Time’s archive publishes the original 1959 news article. Photo credits: #1 Flickr Kemon01, #3 U.S. Navy, #4 Tumblr Charlavail, #5 Wikipedia Commons, #6 F-16.Net.