Recently, a man named Luke Aikins did something most of us couldn’t even dare think about — he jumped out of a plane traveling 25,000 feet above the ground, without a parachute, intending to land safely in a huge net (far, far) below. The daredevil survived — here’s a video — setting a world record in the process (for “Highest Jump Without Parachute,” not for “Most Ridiculously Dangerous Hobby”).
Is that the most incredible stunt performed by someone jumping out of a plane? Probably — but, if you include an unintentional “stunt” by a guy named William Rankin, it has some pretty stiff competition.
Rankin was a pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps, serving in both World War II and the Korean War. In the summer of 1959, though, he was out of harm’s way — at least, if you define “harm” as “enemy fire.” But if you include thunderstorms, it’s a different story. On July 26th of that year, the 38-year-old Rankin was on a flight route from Massachusetts to South Carolina — a pretty routine trip — but the weather got in his way. Rankin went above the storm, climbing to a height of 47,000 feet, or about nine miles.
And then, his engine gave out. So, Rankin ejected.
This posed a new problem: he wasn’t wearing a pressure suit. He had a parachute and an oxygen mask, but neither of those were going to help him in the -50 below zero Fahrenheit temperatures he was now subject to. Oh, and he was falling into a lightning cloud. As DI recounts, “As Rankin plunged toward the earth, licks of lightning darted through the massive, writhing storm cloud below him. Rankin had little attention to spare, however, given the disconcerting circumstances. The extreme cold in the upper atmosphere chilled his extremities, and the sudden change in air pressure had caused a vigorous nosebleed and an agonizing swelling in his abdomen. The discomfort was so extreme that he wondered whether the decompression effects would kill him before he reached the ground.”
The only good news is that gravity was on his side. Home was down and Rankin was going down, one way or another. And as an experienced skydiver, he knew how to make sure he got there safely — assuming the elements permitted such a thing. And the parachute was calibrated to open at 10,000 feet all by itself, so there wasn’t much for Rankin to do but fall — and that was most definitely happening.
But then, something else went wrong. The parachute deployed early, while Rankin was still within the grips of the thundercloud. And suddenly, gravity took a back seat to the thundercloud’s updrafts. The parachute was pulled upward into the storm, and Rankin bounced up and down in the air — for 40 minutes.
Eventually, Rankin was freed of this horrible prison in the sky, and he crashed down in the trees in North Carolina. After a panic attack (perfectly understandable), he gathered his wits and, per TIME, “began walking a procedural-square search [and] found himself after two 90° turns on a country road.” A dozen or so drivers passed him before one “took him to a country store, where he collapsed on the floor while waiting for an ambulance to carry him to a hospital in Ahoskie, N.C.” And Lieutenant Colonel Rankin, ultimately and miraculously, lived to tell about it.
Rankin, by virtue of the fact that he had a parachute, can’t challenge Aikins’ record. However, he has his own: as Wikipedia notes, he’s “the only known person to survive a fall from the top of a cumulonimbus thunderstorm cloud.”
From the Archives: Lightning Lake: The lake that has more nights with thunderstorms than not (almost).
Take the Quiz: Fill in the blanks: Thunder or Lightning?
Related: “The Man Who Rode Thunder,” a graphic novel of William Rankin’s ordeal by William Rankin, from 1960. 22 reviews, averaging 4.8 stars.