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Military History: The Incredible Story Of The Marine Who Rode Lightning

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Lt. Col. William Rankin ejected from his F-8 Crusader at 40,000 feet, fell through a nightmarish storm, and survived.

When Marine Lt. Col. William Henry Rankin ejected at 40,000 feet after his F-8 Crusader malfunctioned, things didn’t seem like they could get much worse. Then he fell through a raging thunderstorm.

On July 26, 1959, Rankin was on a high-altitude flight along the Carolina Coast with his wingman, Navy Lt. Herbert Nolan. The pair of F-8 Crusaders — called “candy stripers” for their distinctive silver-grey and orange coloring — cruised along at an altitude of 47,000 feet.

It was a smooth flight. The only potential problem was the storm beneath them, one they would have to fly through before landing at the Marine air station in Beaufort, South Carolina.

They were nine miles up and minutes away from the air station when things took a turn.

Rankin’s engine quit with a jolt. He tried in vain to keep his aircraft from nosing downward and gaining speed, but it didn’t work. Instincts honed over more than 100 combat missions during World War II and the Korean War told Rankin what he had to do.

He radioed Nolan: “Power failure. May have to eject.”

It was going to be rough. Rankin pulled the overhead handles to trigger the ejection sequence, and moments later he was in the air as his plane descended into the clouds below.

Rankin was now free falling from 40,000 feet. The air was -65 degrees fahrenheit and the effect of the altitude led to severe decompression.

“I had a terrible feeling like my abdomen was bloated twice its size. My nose seemed to explode. For 30 seconds I thought the decompression had me,” Rankin told Time Magazine in an August 1959 article about the ordeal. “It was a shocking cold all over. My ankles and wrists began to burn as though somebody had put dry ice on my skin. My left hand went numb. I had lost that glove when I went out.”

Rankin’s parachute was set to deploy automatically at 10,000 feet and though he wanted to open it earlier, he knew he couldn’t. The combination of freezing temperatures, decompression, and lack of oxygen would likely kill him before he reached the ground.

Falling through the air, Rankin plunged into the storm — the same one he was soaring over just minutes earlier.

Read the Remainder at Task and Purpose

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