The Man Who Rode The Thunder

At the National Storm Chaser Convention banquet, I was talking to an interesting chaser couple from Kansas. The wife of the couple flies big Air Force refueling tankers, and the husband is a parachuting instructor. I joked that he should chase a thunderstorm by jumping into it from his wife's plane, and someone else at the table said someone else had already parachuted through a thunderstorm. A bit of Googling on my phone, and I came up with Lt. Col William H. Rankin, and his book, The Man Who Rode the Thunder:


The 1960 book is out of print, but I ordered a used copy, and just finished reading it. Rankin's story is unbelievable, why hasn't anyone optioned this book as a movie?

Rankin, a very successful Marine aviator and WWII and Korea vet, was flying high above a massive thunderstorm on July 26, 1959--the early days of supersonic jet aviation.  He had engine problems, and had to eject high up in the atmosphere.  He fell through the thunderstorm.  Weather geeks like me think about updrafts and pressure variations, hail, lightning, and thunder inside the storm and watch them from a distance, but Rankin fell directly through them, and was held aloft for nearly 40 minutes (from that altitude, his descent should have taken about 10).  The wikipedia entry summarizes the story pretty well:

In the summer of 1959, Rankin was flying from South Weymouth Naval Air Station, Massachusetts to Beaufort, North Carolina. He was climbing over a thunderhead that peaked at 45,000 ft (13.7 km), when—at 47,000 ft (14.3 km) and at mach 0.82—he heard a loud bump and rumble from the engine. The rpm fell to zero, and the fire warning light flashed.  He pulled a lever to deploy auxiliary power, but the lever broke off in his hands. Although the temperature outside was −50°C and he was not wearing a pressure suit, he was forced to eject. At 6:00 pm, he ejected. He suffered immediate frostbite, and decompression caused his eyes, ears, nose, and mouth to start bleeding. His abdomen swelled as if he were pregnant. Pain seared his body, though numbed by the cold. He managed to use his emergency oxygen supply. Five minutes after he left the plane, his parachute still hadn't opened. Finally, still in the upper regions of the thunderstorm, with near-zero visibility, the parachute opened. After ten minutes, when he normally would have already landed, Rankin was still in the air, being carried upward by updrafts and getting hit by hailstones. Violent spinning and pounding caused him to vomit. Lightning appeared, which he described as blue blades several feet thick, and thunder, which was so close he could feel as well as hear it. The rain forced him to hold his breath to keep from drowning. One lightning bolt lit up the parachute, making Rankin believe he had died. Soon, however, conditions calmed, and he descended into a forest. His watch read 6:40 pm. He searched for help and eventually was admitted into a hospital at Ahoskie, North Carolina. He suffered from frostbite, welts, bruises, and severe decompression.

Weather geeks can probably skim the chapters of the book on WWII and Korea, but the several chapters he wrote on his experience in the storm are unbelievable. 

Sadly, in Googling around, it seems that the Lt. Col died just last year.  A commenter named Wayne Rankin posted this on Amazon:

It is with great sadness that I must report that my uncle passed away on July 6, 2009. He was a true American hero. My name is Wayne Rankin and Lt. Col. Wm. Rankin is my uncle. I grew up with him visiting us and I am very proud of what he accomplished during his career in the Marine Corps. His story has inspired me to be what I am today. My son joined the Marines and is a decorated hero of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was awarded a Purple Heart and nominated for a Silver Star. He always stated he did it in part because of my Uncle Bill. If anyone is interested and reads this [...] Thanks.

Used copies of the book are still out there on Amazon, and I definitely recommend a read: