Free fall through hell

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

On the 26th July 1959, a storm cell was steadily tracking across North Carolina causing extremely severe winds and dark fluffy masses that towered to over 45000ft. Lt Colonel William Rankin was just beginning his 40 minute, 8-mile vertical journey back to the relative safety of the earth below.

During a routine flight and safety strapped into his confined cockpit above the storm, engine failure and a subsequent loss of control forced Rankin to eject from his F8-Crusader fighter jet at 47000 ft. The rapid depressurisation immediately caused him to bleed violently from his extremities, his stomach swelled and the intense -50°C air temperature glaciated his exposed skin. Drifting in and out of consciousness the only thing keeping his heart beating was his ejector seat’s 4-minute oxygen supply.

Accelerating toward the ground, surrounded by pitch darkness, the only source of light was the occasional lightning bolts that streaked all around him. Thunder shuddered his bones to their core and hail battered his weakening body. Succumbing to the extremes of the storm, his parachute’s barometric pressure system deployed the chute early, with him immediately being thrust upwards in the cumulonimbuses updraft. Rankin went through these endless cycles for over 30 minutes, at times being violently jostled thousands of feet in a matter of seconds and often nearly drowning due to the onslaught of water all around him.

These are his words describing the ordeal:

"I'd see lightning. Boy, do I remember that lightning,”. “I never exactly heard the thunder; I felt it. I remember falling through hail, and that worried me; I was afraid the hail would tear the chute. Sometimes I was falling through heavy water — I'd take a breath and breathe in a mouthful of water. Sometimes I had the sensation I was looping the chute. I was blown up and down as much as 6,000 feet at a time. It went on for a long time, like being on a very fast elevator, with strong blasts of compressed air hitting you."

After 40 minutes of hell, the storm eventually subsided enough that he could make it to the ground, crash landing in a tree and having to cut himself down from the entangled mess of fabric and branches. Amazingly he managed to stumble to a nearby road and was picked up by a passer-by and taken to hospital. He spent 6 weeks recovering in Ahskiu hospital in North Carolina being treated for frostbite, welts and severe decompression. He went on to make a full recovery, retiring from the Marine Corps in 1964 and passing away in 2009.

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