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kottke.org posts about Bill Weaver

The Man Who Rode the Thunder

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 09, 2014

In 1959, Lt Colonel William Rankin ejected from his F-8 Crusader at 47,000 feet. He was not wearing a pressure suit, which was a bummer because it was -58 °F outside the cockpit. Frostbite and symptoms of decompression1
immediately ensued. But his troubles were just beginning.

As the parachute opened, he felt the familiar tug upwards. Except instead of a slow descent, he experienced a rapid ascent. The powerful updraft filled his parachute like a sail and rocketed him vertically thousands of feet at a velocity of nearly 100 mph. During his ascent, he could see hail stones forming around him. The lightning was described by him as “blue blades several feet thick” and incredibly close. The thunder was so loud, he could feel it resonating in his chest cavity and remembered this more so than how loud it was. At one point, the lightning lit up his parachute leading him to believe he had died. The rain would pelt him from all directions, and at times was so intense, he had to hold his breath for fear of drowning. But this was only half the agony — the other half being the downdrafts.

Once the updraft exhausted itself, the associated downdraft would ensue. It was during this phase of his journey that he truly thought he would die. His parachute would collapse around him, much like a wet blanket, and plunge him into a rapid free fall towards earth. The odds of his parachute re-inflating correctly were slim, but not only did it do so once, it did numerous times through a multitude of updraft and downdraft cycles.

Under normal conditions, Rankin’s trip to the ground would have taken less than 10 minutes, but that thunderstorm kept him hostage for 40 minutes. (via @BadAstronomer)

Update: In 1966, pilot Bill Weaver and his navigator Jim Zwayer were testing an SR-71 Blackbird when something went wrong and the plane disintegrated around its occupants. Weaver was incredibly lucky to make it out alive.

My next recollection was a hazy thought that I was having a bad dream. Maybe I’ll wake up and get out of this mess, I mused. Gradually regaining consciousness, I realized this was no dream; it had really happened. That also was disturbing, because I could not have survived what had just happened. Therefore, I must be dead. Since I didn’t feel bad — just a detached sense of euphoria — I decided being dead wasn’t so bad after all. As full awareness took hold, I realized I was not dead, but had somehow separated from the airplane. I had no idea how this could have happened; I hadn’t initiated an ejection. The sound of rushing air and what sounded like straps flapping in the wind confirmed I was falling, but I couldn’t see anything. My pressure suit’s face plate had frozen over and I was staring at a layer of ice.

(via @axlotl)

  1. “The sudden decompression caused his stomach to swell, his ears, nose and mouth to bleed, and the only thing keeping him conscious was his O2 canister attached to his helmet.”