William Rankin: The Man Who Spent 40 Minutes Falling From a Plane

The incredible story of the man who rode thunder for 40 minutes and 65 miles.

max-millerby max-miller
The story of what happened to Lt. Col. William Henry Rankin, a veteran of both the Korean War and World War II, will make any other story you ever tell anyone completely dull and pointless.

In the summer of 1959, a 39-year-old Rankin was performing a routine flight in his F-8 Crusader — one of the first American fighter jets with the ability to fly faster than 1,000 mph — from Massachusetts to North Carolina along with a pilot in another jet.

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Not too far from when he was due to make his descent, Rankin experienced some engine trouble at 47,000 feet. As if that wasn’t enough of a cause for concern, the trouble was also accompanied by both a fire warning and a system failure. Rankin watched as the indicator needles on his panel of instruments all seemed to be dropping to where all pilots never want to see them drop. Rankin managed to get his radio working by using his plane’s emergency generator, and notified the pilot in the other plane that he would probably have to eject.

Seeing no other option, Rankin did what he knew he had to do. He knew the risk he was taking, considering the altitude and his lack of a pressure suit, but he also knew it was his only chance of survival. Rankin yanked on the eject handles at around 6 p.m. and was immediately thrust into the surrounding atmosphere. It didn’t take him long to begin feeling the excruciatingly painful effects of a human body at that altitude without any protective machinery.

As if falling towards the ground rapidly wasn’t enough, Rankin immediately began to suffer from frostbite, and his abdomen swelled, causing discomfort so intense that he became concerned that he would die before he even hit the ground. He even began to bleed from his nose due to weakened blood vessels bursting from the decompression. The pain Rankin was feeling was merely an introduction to the entire adventure.

During the freefall, Rankin found himself caught in a thunderstorm. Somehow, the pressure from the storm triggered Rankin’s parachute and it deployed. The blast of wind from the storm against his chute jerked Rankin back and forth, and he was also hit with hail. Rankin later described what he was feeling at the time: “I’d see lightning. Boy, do I remember that lightning. I never exactly heard the thunder; I felt it.” At times, he would begin to fall, and at others he would be yanked upwards, causing a vicious, rollercoaster-like cycle.

Rankin began to suffer from motion sickness that made him vomit. The air around him had become so dense with liquid from the storm that Rankin struggled not to choke, and feared that he might drown. The storm continued tossing Rankin around, causing concern that he would become entangled in the lines from his chute.

Just when the cocktail of torture became almost entirely unbearable, Rankin finally felt some relief. He regained some feeling in his frostbitten limbs and noticed that he was no longer being thrust around. He had finally dropped out of the storm and felt the result of a warmer atmosphere. Despite all the violence, Rankin’s parachute was functioning properly, leading to one last, violent thrust of wind that ensnared him in a tree’s branches and slammed him headfirst into a tree trunk.

Rankin landed 65 miles from where he had originally ejected. After he managed to remove himself from the tree, he made note of the time. It was 6:40 p.m. He had be tossed around for 40 minutes. Amazingly, Rankin escaped from the entire ordeal with only minor injuries. He eventually returned to duty, wrote a book about his amazing experience and went on to live another 50 years, making every man who has heard his tale feel like a complete wuss.