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Incredible Ride: Crusader Pilot Punches Out Into a Thunderstorm

LTCOL William Rankin Survived 40 Minutes Inside a Thunderhead

LTCOL Rankin via US Navy

What Would Old Grampa Pettibone Say?

When Marine Corps Fighter Squadron ONE TWO TWO (VMF-122) became the first Marine Corps squadron to fly and carrier qualify the North American FJ-2 Fury the squadron was known as the Candystripers. But in 1958 the squadron relocated from Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Cherry Point northeast of Camp Lejeune in North Carolina to MCAS Beaufort southwest of Charleston in South Carolina. VMF-122 was then redesignated VMF(AW)-122 because the squadron soon became the first in the Marine Corps to fly the new Vought F8U-1 Crusader. Leading VMF(AW)-122 through this transition was Lieutenant Colonel William H. Rankin.

VMF-122 FJ-2 via US Navy

LTCOL Rankin had been around. During World War II he had served as a garrison Marine on the island of Funafuti but wanted to get into action somehow. Rankin tried fleet gunnery school but was turned down. He then applied for flight training and was accepted. Though the war ended before he received his wings, receive them he did, in September of 1946. Rankin then became a Marine Corps Vought F4U-4 Corsair pilot. When the Korean War broke out, Rankin was flying a desk until July of 1951, when now-Major Rankin arrived at K-3 in Korea with the rest of VMF-212 Devil Cats. Rankin flew more than 50 close air support (CAS) missions and was lucky until September 5th, when he was forced to bail out of his Corsair.

VMF-212 F4U via US Navy

VMF-212 embarked aboard the escort carrier USS Rendova (CVE-114) about a month after Rankin was rescued and returned to the squadron. He was wounded in his legs during a strike against the infamous bridge/rail complex at Toko-Ri but made it back to the Rendova safely, though his Corsair was ventilated with more than 130 holes. Sidelined from Korea while recovering from his wounds, Rankin completed his recovery and was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. After attending jet transition training he took command of VMA-121 Wolf Raiders in 1955. His first command tour went well, with Douglas AD-1 and AD-2 Skyraider-equipped VMA-121 earning awards and with Rankin next being ordered to take command of VMF-122 Candystripers.

VMF-122 F8U via US Navy

After VMF(AW)-122 transitioned from their Furies to Crusaders under the leadership of LTCOL Rankin during 1958 (and they changed that cringeworthy nickname), Rankin’s ability to develop and implement the policies, procedures, and practices needed to transition to the F-8 earned him a tour as the standardization / evaluation inspector for Marine Air Group 32. For LTCOL Rankin, that meant he was tasked with doing things like cross-country high-altitude navigation check rides. Like most desk-bound pilots, Rankin relished any and every chance to strap on an F-8 and get into the blue. And so Rankin found himself scheduled for a two-ship check ride to NAS South Weymouth not too far from Boston in Massachusetts- about 1,000 miles each way. The outbound leg on July 25th went well with great weather. The return leg the next day…not so much.

Marine Corps F8U via US Navy

Things started with a radio malfunction, which caused LTCOL Rankin and his check-ee, Navy Lieutenant Herbert Nolan, to remain overnight at South Weymouth. The next day the two aviators did their pre-flight, which included a weather brief stating the two could expect thunderstorms and cumulonimbus clouds between 30,000 and 40,000 feet in tops in southern Virginia. Rankin figured he could get over the tops and asked about frontal conditions, receiving a negative reply; only local thunderstorms were expected. Rankin and Nolan filed VFR flight plans for an altitude of 44,000 feet and an airspeed of 540 mph- which would have put them back in Beaufort after about 70 minutes. I can hear old Grampaw Pettibone now!

USMC F8U via US Navy

LTCOL Rankin was flying F8U-1 Crusader Bureau Number (BuNo) 143696 that day. Though Rankin was assigned to Headquarters and Maintenance Squadron 32 (H&MS-32), Rankin liked using his old Tiger One callsign. The two aviators sighted what Rankin called “dark, massive rolling clouds of a thunderstorm” looming on the horizon not far from Norfolk in Virginia. Still figuring to go up and over the storms, the two jets leveled off at 48,000 feet. Rankin’s jet indicated some minor power fluctuations and he lost a bit of altitude. Rankin initiated a climb back to FL 480. At 1758 local time the J57-P-12 turbojet engine in Rankin’s jet seized when he was flying at Mach 0.82. Rankin called Nolan in Tiger Two to notify him of the situation.

Marine Corps F-8s via US Navy

Rankin began following emergency procedures. First was to deploy the ram air turbine (RAT) to get auxiliary power back. When Rankin pulled the release lever it broke off in his hand. This meant Rankin had no power, radio, instruments, or control over the jet. As his momentary zoom climb slowed down at its apex, Rankin figured he had to get out of the doomed Crusader quickly before too much speed built up during its dive back down from FL480. Rankin also knew that he could be pinned inside the aircraft by a spin during a free-fall from high altitude. After quickly weighing his options, Rankin pulled his upper ejection seat handles and punched out of 143696 at 1800 local time.

Thunderstorm via public domain

Rankin was immediately racked by decompression effects and he lost his left glove. Rankin was certainly not prepared for the decompression effects, saying, “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. 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. My eyes felt as though they were being ripped from their sockets, my head as if it were splitting into several parts, my ears bursting inside.” The combined effects of frostbite at high altitude and decompression were taking their toll on Rankin. And then he tumbled into the tops of the thunderstorm!

Thunderhead detail via public domain

Rankin was conscious but in severe pain. He reseated him oxygen mask but did not deploy his parachute in the belief that he would freeze or die of hypoxia while he floated down through 40,000-plus feet. The parachute deployed itself for him, meaning Rankin was at the mercy of the updrafts and downdrafts always present inside thunderstorms. As Rankin described it later, he “was in an angry ocean of boiling clouds, blacks and grays and whites, spilling over each other, into each other, digesting each other. I became a veritable molecule trapped in the thermal pattern of nature’s heat engine. I was buffeted in all directions—up, down, sideways, clockwise, counterclockwise, over and over; I tumbled, spun, and zoomed straight up, straight down, and I was rattled violently, as though a monstrous cat had caught me by the neck… Before long, I found out the storm had allies with whom I had to do battle, physically and mentally: thunder, lightning, hail, and rain. I was afraid I wouldn’t make it. It seemed like an eternity.”

Thunderhead via NASA

“I’d see lightning. Boy, do I remember that lightning. I never exactly heard the thunder; I felt it. I remember falling through hail, and that worried me; I was afraid the hail would tear the chute. Sometimes I was falling through heavy water—I’d take a breath and breathe in a mouthful of water. Sometimes I had the sensation I was looping the chute. I was blown up and down as much as 6,000 feet at a time. It went on for a long time, like being on a very fast elevator, with strong blasts of compressed air hitting you. At one point I got seasick and heaved. I went up and joined the chute. It draped over me like a sheet, and I was afraid that when I blossomed again, I’d be tangled in the shrouds and risers. But I wasn’t, thank God.”

Marine Corps F-8 via US Navy

The storm finally kicked Rankin free and he was able to descend normally. He finally landed in a stand of trees near North Carolina State Highway 305 at 1840 local time- forty minutes after he punched out of his stricken Crusader. When taken to a hospital, Rankin was treated for internal bleeding, broken bones, and frostbite. F8U-1 BuNo 143696 ended up about 20 miles south of where Rankin landed. The jet cratered (literally) in a pea field near Coleman’s sawmill on State Highway 258, about a half-mile from the town of Scotland Neck, not long after 1800 local time. When the wreckage of the jet was inspected it was confirmed that the engine had indeed seized. Given his options, Rankin made the correct, if harrowing, call. He recovered fully from his ordeal and remains the only pilot to ever survive such an experience. Rankin went on to write a book about the experience. Rankin retired from the Marine Corps in 1964 and passed away in 2009.

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Bill Walton

Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.

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