• U.S.

HEROES: The Nightmare Fall

6 minute read

Lightning slashed the white peaks of the boiling thunderclouds below as a pair of silver-and-orange F8U Crusader jet fighters streaked smoothly down the Carolina coast on the return leg of a high-altitude flight to Boston. Lieut. Colonel William Henry Rankin, U.S.M.C., sitting under the curved glass canopy of the lead jet, took his two-plane flight over an angry anvil of cloud, sat back casually as his eye ran across the instrument panel. Altitude: 47,000 feet. True air speed: 500 knots. It was a crisp, sunlit flight, and the only problem in sight was to bore down through the overcast to the rain-browned runways of the Marine Auxiliary Air Station at Beaufort, S.C., only minutes away.

But before muscular, 39-year-old Bill Rankin, combat pilot and a bar-bellhefting, physical-culture fan, would touch earth again, he was in for 40 minutes that even other old salts of the air would be talking about for years.

At nine miles up, his engine quit with a grating, rasping jolt. Rankin hopefully eyed the slumping panel needles, tried vainly to coax juice from an emergency electrical generator to rouse his radio, kept his aircraft from nosing over into supersonic speed. But only for an instant; a hundred battle missions and a bail-out in enemy fire over Korea had honed his survival instincts, and Rankin knew the choice. To his wingman, Lieut. Herbert Nolan, he snapped a message over his faltering transmitter: “Power failure. May have to eject.” To himself he said: “This is going to be a pretty high one.”

The Good Chute. As the Crusader lost altitude and sank into the clouds, .Rankin put his life in the hands of the ingenious engineers who had sweated for years to anticipate his problem. He pulled two overhead handles to trigger a fast sequence: 1) a canvas windscreen came down over his face, 2) the plane’s canopy blew off, 3) an explosive charge sent seat and pilot into the thin, —65° air, and 4) in the air a cable from the plane yanked the metal seat off his rump, left Marine Rankin above 40,000 feet with his jet helmet, oxygen mask and his parachute, preset to open automatically-at the safe-breathing level of 10,000 feet. “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,” recounts Rankin. “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.

“It seemed like I free-fell an eternity. All this time I had this keen desire to pull the ripcord. I had to keep telling myself, ‘If you do, you’ll slow down and freeze to death or die from lack of oxygen.’ Just as I was considering pulling the cord, I felt a shock. I looked up to see the chute. All I could see was cloud. But I could tell from pulling on the risers that I had a good chute.

“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.”

Getting Warmer. “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. At last, I realized I was getting warmer. The air was smooth. And rain was falling on me. I figured I was down to 300 or 500 feet. I told myself, ‘All I have to do now is make a good landing.’ ”

Swept by stiff ground winds, his chute fouled in a tree, and Pilot Rankin slammed headfirst into the tree trunk. He got up groggily, stiff, cold and numb, with his crash helmet knocked askew. He stumbled into a thicket, was for a moment almost hysterical. Then to himself: “You’ve come this far down for this? Let’s get organized.” He began walking a procedural-square search, found himself after two 90° turns on a country road. A dozen cars passed him as he stood on the road, wet, bloody, vomit-stained and haggard, and waving feebly. Finally a car slowed (“Stop,” a small boy cried to his father, “there’s a jet pilot standing in the road!”), 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.

Last week, at the Beaufort (pronounced Bewfirt) Naval Hospital, where he is recovering from frostbite and shock, Pilot Rankin forecast, “I’ll be back in the air in a month.” But the Marine Corps had other ideas. The medics were not likely to certify him for duty that early, although his injuries seemed to be remarkably minor. Even if they did, Pilot Rankin’s next duty, according to orders on the docket, will be a nine-month general-staff course at Quantico, where good officers get better and a pilot can still get enough flight time to keep his hand in.

*On ejection, the cable that yanks the seat free also trips a safety lever that sets the parachute’s aneroid barometer into action. As the pilot falls, the increasing pressure compresses the metal diaphragm of the barometer. When the barometer records a pressure normal to 10,000 feet (the altitude was considerably higher in Rankin’s case, because of the barometric turbulence of the storm), a strong spring releases the ripcord pin and the chute opens.

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