Sixty-one years ago to the day, Marine Lieutenant Colonel William Henry Rankin was forced to eject from his Vought F8U Crusader (SN 143696) when the aircraft’s turbojet engine seized at 47,000 feet. Unfortunately, Rankin’s post-bailout descent took him into a powerful thunderstorm that subjected the pilot to a cacophony of life-threatening horrors. Forty minutes after exiting his aircraft, Rankin landed in a forested area some 65 miles from his point of ejection.
Around 1700 hours EDT on Sunday, 26 July 1959, a two-ship formation of Marine F8U Crusaders departed South Weymouth Massachusetts bound for Beaufort, South Carolina. William Rankin, call sign TIGER ONE, was the formation commander with Marine Lieutenant Herbert Nolan, call sign TIGER TWO, flying wing. Since the 800 mile trip was considered routine and expected to take only 70 minutes, both airmen were dressed in only a light summer flying suit.
En-route to Beaufort, the Marine aviators encountered thunderstorm activity in the Norfolk, Virginia area. With thunderheads rising to around 44,000 feet, they ascended to 48,000 feet as a storm avoidance measure. Suddenly, Rankin heard an ominous thump and grinding noises coming from his engine. This was followed by another thump whereupon the red FIRE warning light began to glow. Rankin throttled back immediately. Perhaps he could save his engine and limp back home. Moments later that faint hope was dashed when engine power plummeted to zero. His engine had seized.
Working quickly, the aviator reached to deploy his Ram Air Turbine (RAT) in an attempt to maintain minimum levels of electrical and hydraulic power. Alarmingly, the RAT handle broke off in his hand! Quickly assessing his limited options, Rankin made the only choice that gave him a decent chance of survival; he ejected. Ejection occurred with his Crusader in a slight climb and a speed of several hundred miles per hours. The last altimeter reading Rankin saw before leaving the cockpit was 47,000 feet. The time of ejection was 1800 hours EDT.
Ejection from an aircraft is a physically brutal and dangerous event. It became even more so for Rankin as he instantly went from +75F in the cockpit to –70F outside air temperature. At 47,000 feet, the ambient static pressure is only 13% of the sea level value. Thus, the pilot simultaneously experienced rapid-onset frostbite and sudden decompression. The latter caused his abdomen to grotesquely swell several times its normal size and for blood to come out of his eyes, nose, ears, and mouth. The pain of atmospheric exposure was beyond excruciating.
As Rankin free-fell towards the dark storm clouds below, he tumbled, spun, and cart-wheeled wildly through the sky. The rotation-induced centrifugal force was so great that he was unable to move his limbs making him look much like a starfish. It suddenly occurred to Rankin that he needed to be breathing the oxygen in his bailout bottle to maintain consciousness and avoid possible brain damage. However, his oxygen mask was not in place and kept hitting him in the face as he spun. Entering the wispy white clouds at the top of the thunderhead, Rankin’s spin rate began to decrease to the point where he could now move his limbs. This allowed him to grab and hook-up his face mask whereupon wonderful life-giving oxygen began to flow into his lungs.
Rankin’s parachute was designed to open at 10,000 feet. After what seemed like an eternity of falling, his parachute deployed and blossomed as intended. Parachute deployment was quite violent and rattled Rankin’s battered body. He strained to see the canopy, but it was too dark to pick it out within the massive storm cell. Happily, Rankin could see and feel the taut risers which were connected to the canopy and he surmised that he indeed had a good chute. Things were starting to look up a bit for the battered Marine aviator.
What Rankin did not know at the time was that his parachute actually deployed at an altitude that was much higher than intended; somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 feet. Not good. The resulting increased descent time would keep him in the storm longer. However, other than a little turbulence, the first minute or so on his chute did not portend what Rankin was about to experience.
With an alarming suddenness, Rankin was hit by a massive wall of turbulent air. It felt to him like he had hit a concrete wall. He went soaring up thousands of feet in a huge updraft. When the energy of the updraft finally dissipated, he started to descend again. Descent was worst than ascent. The pilot was buffeted and rattled violently in all directions. In Rankin’s words, he was “stretched, slammed, and pounded.” The rapid changes in g-force magnitude and direction caused him to vomit over and over. This terrible up-and-down process was repeated more times than Rankin could count. In all of this, the pilot was absolutely amazed and supremely grateful that his parachute held together.
Deep within the bowels of the violent storm, dark and roiling clouds seethed about Rankin and his vulnerable parachute. Just when it seemed that things couldn’t get any tougher, they did! The culprits were lightning, thunder, rain, and hail. The lightning and thunder encompassed him completely about. The former was like thick, intensely luminous sheets of blue. The latter was a horrific rolling explosion that Rankin intensely felt more than he heard. This meteorological one-two punch came every 30 to 60 seconds.
Rankin was exposed to torrential rains throughout his time in the storm cell. However, there were moments in which the rain was so intense that he gasped for air and thought he literally would drown in the sky. Then hail began to pound him. Rankin later said that it seemed like it was raining baseballs. Multitudinous hailstone impacts left a mass of welts that covered his entire body. Rankin said that he thanked his Maker that he was still wearing his helmet. Without it, he was certain that severe head injury would have resulted.
Eventually, the massive storm let go of William Rankin. He landed in a forest in North Carolina; 65 miles from the point of ejection. His watch told him that his battle with nature had lasted 40 minutes. His jet crashed 20 miles away and was vaporized on impact. (Happily, no one on the ground was hurt.) The story of his being rescued will not be told here. Suffice it to say that Rankin fully recovered and ultimately returned to flying as a Marine aviator. He lived 50 more years and passed from this mortal sphere in 2009 at the age of 89.
As a footnote, the reader is highly encouraged to read William Rankin’s “The Man Who Rode the Thunder” (Prentice-Hall, 1960). By doing so, one will come to more fully understand and appreciate just what Marine Lieutenant Colonel William H. Rankin experienced that eventful day in 1959.