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How one pilot literally rode out a dangerous storm

Columbia Daily Tribune logo Columbia Daily Tribune 3/22/2023 Mike Szydlowski
Lenticular clouds fill the sky over McCloud, California. When these lenticular clouds build up, it usually means a storm is brewing. © Shareen Strauss Lenticular clouds fill the sky over McCloud, California. When these lenticular clouds build up, it usually means a storm is brewing.

Almost all of us ride out many “storms” in our lives.

However, none of us have literally rode out a storm like 39-year-old Lieutenant Colonel William Rankin experienced in the summer of 1959.  

Rankin and another pilot in a nearby jet were making a routine flight above North Carolina. The two pilots were about to start their descent to the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort, South Carolina when Rankin heard his engine abruptly grind, then completely stop.  

Rankin and his plane (with no running engine) were now 45,000 feet above the Earth and falling. Luckily, his plane had an emergency power supply that could at least temporarily get him back on track. He pulled the lever to start the back-up power and the lever broke off in his hand.

No power. His plane was falling.  

Typically, his plane would not be so high in the atmosphere, but the two planes climbed to get above some very mean-looking storms in their flight path. The storm clouds reached the upper limits of the troposphere and then flattened out at the top, creating anvil-shaped clouds.

This is a tell-tale sign that a storm has reached maximum strength. By traveling above the storms, the pilots would avoid dangerous travel conditions. Well, now Rankin’s plane was 1/2 mile above the storm but without an engine. The plane was falling.  

With no other option, Rankin pulled the eject level (at least that worked), and was propelled out of the cockpit into air that was 58 degrees below zero and had an atmospheric pressure so low his body immediately swelled up and blood started pouring from his eyes, ears and nose.

There is also very little oxygen up there, but he did have an emergency oxygen mask that would allow him to make it down to the 10,000-foot mark where his parachute could safely deploy. If it deployed any sooner, it would slow his trip to the ground and he could run out of oxygen before the oxygen thickened closer to Earth. He should free fall for 3 to 4 minutes before his parachute opened at 10,000 feet altitude.  

Rankin free fell into the top of the mature storm, and somehow his miserable conditions got even worse. He could no longer see anything around him as he got pelted with rain and large chunks of ice. The storm was so strong that the updrafts were sending the rain high enough into the cloud, turning them into ice. 

The ice fell but then blew back up and gained more ice. He was still falling and, for what seemed like a lot longer than four minutes, worried his parachute was not opening.  

Finally, he felt the jerk of his parachute pulling him from above as it opened. The problem was this: the storm messed with the barometer the parachute used to know when to open and it opened way too early. He was well above the safe 10,000-foot mark.

For the next 30 minutes, Rankin and his parachute were carried up and down by the storm’s strong up-and-down drafts. Each time he went up, he was carried into the hail-making zone and once again pelted with ice. Lightning was flashing all around him with simultaneous thunder that shook his body almost to the point of giving him a concussion.  

What seems almost impossible got worse. Several times he almost drowned up in the sky. The storm cloud held so much water that he was taking in more water than air when he breathed and it started to fill his lungs.  

Finally, the storm eased and Rankin fell to a survivable level. The winds died down and he glided closer to Earth. Of course, right before he landed, a gust of wind sent him and his parachute headfirst into the trunk of a tree but his helmet allowed him to survive. Forty minutes after ejecting from plane, he was now on the ground. His fall to Earth should have been almost 10 times shorter. 

The pilot, bleeding, bruised, half frozen and battered, flagged down a car that took him to the hospital, where he spent several weeks. Next time you see a storm cloud, you may never take it for granted again — William Rankin didn’t. 

Mike Szydlowski is a science teacher and zoo facilitator at Jefferson STEAM School.

This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: How one pilot literally rode out a dangerous storm


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