William Rankin: The Man Who Fell Through a Thundercloud

Oct 2, 2023 1 comments

Lieutenant Colonel William Henry Rankin gently pulled back the stick of his F-8 Crusader to put the single-engine supersonic fighter jet on a steady climb. His goal was to go over the ominous looking cumulonimbus thunderstorm cloud that was forming just ahead of him. He had been inside a thundercloud before and the experience was so violent that nobody ever had to remind him again to avoid thunderclouds.

Rankin watched his altimeter as the jet continued to gather altitude. At 45,000 feet he could still see the wispy tops of the storm. He let his jet climb. At 48,000 feet, he was now well over the top of the storm. Rankin’s fingers eased on the stick and the jet levelled off. His wingman, Lt Herbert Nolan, who was following Rankin on another Crusader did the same.

A cumulonimbus cloud. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

It was July 26, 1959, and both Rankin and Nolan were flying over the Carolina coast from the Naval Air Station in South Weymouth to the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort. The weather had been crisp and sunlit for the entire duration of the flight, until they were over Atlantic City. The skies then started to get hazy and Rankin could see that a nasty storm was on the way. It was still half an hour before touchdown.

At that moment, Rankin heard a sudden thump and a rumbling sound coming from somewhere behind and under him. A series of jolt followed and several warning lights on his instruments panel lit up in amber. The one that he feared the most was labelled FIRE. It indicated that there was excessive heat in the engine system and there may soon be a fire, or fire may have already started. Rankin responded by cutting back on the power to ease the stress on the engine. At the same time, he radioed his wingman that he might have to eject.

Reducing power apparently worked because the FIRE alarm went out. Rankin sighed in relief but the reprieve was fleeting, for soon the engine sputtered and froze, and Rankin lost all electrical as well as hydraulic power. With hydraulic power gone, maneuvering the aircraft became impossible. Rankin attempted to activate the auxiliary power, but when he tried to pull the activating lever, to his surprise, the handle detached itself from the airframe. The only course of action left was to eject.

Rankin’s altitude at over 47,000 feet was much higher for a safe bail out. The temperature outside was well below freezing and atmospheric pressure was dangerously low. Rankin was clad in nothing more than a summer-weight flying suit. He did not think a pressure suit was necessary for this flight. To make matter worse, the airplane was still gaining altitude without power, leaving Rankin with no means to descend to a safer altitude for ejection. Waiting for the plane to lose enough airspeed and descend on its own seemed like an option, but it carried its own perils. The aircraft could enter a spin or even reach supersonic speeds, making a bailout a potentially fatal decision in these conditions.

An F-8 Crusader, the type Rankin was flying. Photo credit: Stan Shebs/Wikimedia Commons

Without wasting anymore precious seconds, Rankin decided to eject and pulled the two emergency eject handles.

I simultaneously heard and felt the ejection seat fire, almost as though a huge bull elephant had kicked me in the rear and made an explosive snort at the same time. It gave me a peculiar sense of relief because I knew I was going out. The ejection seat, at least, was not defective.

  As soon as Rankin’s body came in contact with the minus 70 degree air, his extremities froze.

I felt as though I were a chunk of beef being tossed into a cavernous deep freeze. Almost instantly all exposed parts of my body—around the face, neck, wrists, hands, and ankles—began to sting from the cold. It felt as if I were on fire. Then, seconds later, the burning sensation turned to a blessed numbness.

Meanwhile, the sudden change in air pressure blew up his insides and his body began to expand. He also started to bleed from his eyes, ears, nose and mouth as a result of ruptures caused by explosive decompression.

I could feel my abdomen distending, stretching, stretching, stretching, until I thought it would burst. My eyes felt as though they were being ripped from their sockets, my head as if it were splitting into several parts, my ears bursting inside, and throughout my entire body there were severe cramps.


Once I caught a horrified glimpse of my stomach, swollen as though I were in well advanced pregnancy. I had never known such savage pain. I was convinced I would not survive; no human could.

Rankin continued to fall through the thunderstorm cloud, his body tumbling, spinning and cartwheeling through space. In spite of the failing nature of free fall, Rankin managed to secure the emergency oxygen supply to his mouth. It would give keep him alive for just enough time for the parachute to deploy automatically at 10,000 feet. But would it? “I had lost confidence in another automatic savior,” Rankin wrote. 

Lieutenant Colonel William Henry Rankin

The cloud was now getting thick and dark. In the meagre amount of light, Rankin looked at the watch and was surprised to see that almost five minutes had passed since he bailed out. A typical free fall from that altitude should not have taken more three and half minutes. Maybe he had passed the 10,000 feet mark and the parachute malfunctioned. Perhaps he was only couple of hundred feet from the ground, hurling towards it. Rankin had an intense desire to manually pull the chute, but just as he was about to do so, he felt the reassuring jolt of the parachute opening. He was also relieved to find out that though his emergency oxygen had run out, the air at this level was dense enough for him to breathe without it.

Under the circumstances, overjoyed to be alive and going down safely, consciously, even the increasing turbulence of the air meant nothing. It was all over now, I thought, the ordeal had ended.

But the turbulence he was beginning to feel meant that he was only now reaching the heart of the storm.

Ten minutes into his descent, Rankin should have reached the ground, but the enormous draughts of air that surged up the core of the cloud retarded his fall. Rankin found himself tossed about and shot upwards in violent gusts of rising air.

Every bone in my body must have rattled, and I went soaring up and up and up as though there would be no end to its force. As I came down again, I saw that I was in an angry ocean of boiling clouds, blacks and grays and whites, spilling over each other, into each other, digesting each other.

I became a veritable molecule trapped in the thermal pattern of heat engine.


Several times—I could not believe it at first— felt as though I had been looping around my parachute, like a pendulum. But it was no gentle to and fro swing. I went up, out, around and down as if on a speeding centrifuge. I could feel blood rushing to my feet, then my head. Practically, I would not have known whether I was upside down, or otherwise oblique, except that I could "sense'' it by the centrifugal force on my body.

Turbulence was only part of the trouble. The most violent were the lightning and thunder.

The first clap of thunder came as a deafening explosion, followed by a blinding flash of lightning, then a rolling, roaring sound which seemed to vibrate every fibre of my body. The lightning was so close, so brilliant that even after I had instinctively closed my eyes I got the sensation of "seeing" a deep red outside.


I used to think of lightning as long, slender, jagged streaks of electricity; but no more. The real thing is different. I saw lightning all around me, over, above, everywhere, and I saw it in every shape imaginable. But when very close it appeared mainly as a huge, bluish sheet, several feet thick, sometimes sticking close to me in pairs, like the blades of a scissor, and  I had the distinct feeling that I was being sliced in two.

Then the rain started, in torrential drenching sheets. The rain was so dense that Rankin feared he would drown. “It was as though I were under a swimming pool, and I had held my breath several times,” he wrote. “Sometimes, I found myself gasping for air as if I actually were drowning.”

While the rain almost threatened to have him drowned, large hails pelted Rankin with bruising force. Luckily, Rankin had his helmet on which protected him from sure concussion. His body, however, was covered with black and blue welts.

Rankin lost track of time. He had given up trying to look at his watch.

I had reconciled myself to a hard, long battle and continued to fight it, armed with hope and mental activity. I thought of myself as being on a strange ferris wheel of nature, and sooner or later the turbulence would have to run out of energy, releasing me gradually toward earth.

Eventually, Rankin found the air getting smoother and the rain more gentle. Moments later, Rankin had dropped out of the cloud. He had only about 200 to 300 feet of ceiling left to orient himself for a landing.

Rankin’s parachute got caught in the treetops, and his battered, bruised and drenched body slammed into a tree trunk. After several minutes assessing his situation and inspecting his limbs for broken bones, Rankin looked at his watch. It was 6:40 PM. He had spent forty minutes bobbing up and down in the belly of the monstrous storm.

Rankin stumbled out of the thicket and walked towards a motor road, where he tried to flag down several passing vehicles. A dozen cars passed him as he stood on the road, wet, bloody, vomit-stained and haggard, and waving feebly.

I must have been a startling if not frightening sight. Many cars, coming at the rate of about one or two every three or four minutes, passed me without so much as a second glance.

Finally a car stopped and took him to a country store, where a phone was used to call an ambulance. After enduring the harrowing ordeal, Rankin found himself in a hospital in Ahoskie, North Carolina, where he spent several weeks in recovery. Remarkably, his injuries proved to be relatively minor, limited to superficial frostbite and a mild case of decompression shock. With time and care, he gradually regained his health and strength.

In due course, Lt. Col. Rankin resumed his duty, returning to his responsibilities. The following year, he chronicled his perilous adventures in a book titled The Man Who Rode the Thunder, a work that has since gone out of print but left an enduring mark on those who had the privilege of reading it.

# William Rankin, The Man Who Rode the Thunder


  1. Amazing to me is the fact Lt. Col. Rankin survived this ordeal. His Guardian Angel must have been working overtime. I highly doubt anyone else has had such a terrorizing experience and lived to tell about it.


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