Dancing With the Valkyries

WORDS TO LIVE BY: Don’t play cards with someone whose first name is a city, don’t mess with mama, and don’t fly near thunderstorms. Well, some folks like to live on the edge, but here’s a true-life recipe for a nightmare from someone who got pushed over it — and lived.

Just for a minute, imagine it’s you. Dressed in summer clothes, take a supersonic jet fighter into the stratosphere only to suffer catastrophic engine failure and bail out about nine miles up. Every cavity in your body explodes in the rarefied air and you hemorrhage into a human slurpee, bleeding from your nose, mouth, ears, and eyes, then free-fall for over three minutes at 120 miles an hour through several miles of air as cold as minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Happy? …it gets better. You’ve jumped out over more than 100 square miles of thunderstorm.

Take the blackest boiling clouds, screaming demon freight train winds, cacophonous blasts of lightning and thunderclaps, add incessant pummeling by icy fusillades of hail, and merciless, drenching sheets of rain. Then dive inside

At 10,000 feet, well into the belly of the beast, your parachute automatically opens. So, instead of plummeting out through the bottom of Hell, you just signed up for the heavy-duty agitator cycle of God’s Maytag. Soon, in the depth of the storm, as visibility drops away, you’re hit with the first blast. The force of the air hits you like you were a dead leaf in a hurricane. Dangling helplessly, you loop, end-over-end in a dark, deafening chaos. Lightning flashes all around you and the thunderclaps explode through your body and rattle your teeth — literally. You’re pulled, whipped and slammed in every direction in ways as violent as they are indescribable. There is no way to tell which way is up, there is no way to tell which way is down. Your body gives in to the insane vertigo and you endure endless retching as you pray — with what sense remains — that you’re not fricasseed by the lightning, frozen by the icy winds or drowned by the torrents of water that are beginning to fill your lungs.

You are instantaneously caught up in your canopy as it collapses around you and then jerked in any direction as it bursts back, true. You struggle to keep the lines clear, you struggle to breathe — you struggle to retain your limbs. This goes on for more than half an hour.

Finally, you’re spit out the bottom … only to see the outline of tree limbs reaching out at you from the dark earth only a few hundred feet below. In moments, your chute — which nearly got you killed and somehow survived to save you — is snagged by branches that swing you like a pendulum and slam you into a tree trunk.

It has been 40 minutes since you ejected. You are bruised and bloody both inside and out. You bailed out over Richmond, Virginia. Welcome to Rich Square, North Carolina — more than 65 miles from the spot where you and your crippled aircraft parted company.

This actually happened — and wouldn’t you know it, to a Marine. Lt. Colonel. William H. Rankin was the pilot of an F8U Crusader over Norfolk, Virginia on July 26, 1959. His adventure was probably also one of the longest jumps under canopy, at least in terms of time. Rankin spent two weeks in the hospital recovering from the ejection, rapid decompression, frostbite and, finally, his encounter with the tree — but he’s not alone.

In the summer of 1975, over Woodbine Maryland, Mike Mount and two other skydivers jumped from 4500 feet near some threatening clouds. Though the two others made it back to earth as planned, Mount didn’t. He had a few unplanned elevator rides up and down when the seemingly-innocent cloud that he intentionally descended into to get to his drop zone turned out to be one of those convective elevators. His first clues were much colder air, not seeing the ground long after he expected to, followed by a revealing glance at his altimeter. Though over 25 years ago, Mike clearly recalls the event, the sense of helplessness, the vertigo — and the wild ride. Though a smaller storm, he too was swung violently around, his chute collapsing and reopening with violent shocks dozens of times in the inky innards of the cumulonimbus.

The most significant hazards to flight that can occur in a thunderstorm are severe to extreme turbulence, hail, icing, and lightning. Don’t think that a thunderstorm won’t snap your airplane in two, it will. Sudden divergent winds can easily dismember a small airplane. Even the storm chasing research planes don’t fly into their angry hearts.

  • The strength of a thunderstorm is related to the strength of the updrafts, which are generally most severe 10 to 15 thousand feet above the ground and can exceed 100 mph. This is enough to lift grapefruit sized hail, much like a ping pong ball suspended over a hair dryer.
  • The strongest downdrafts are generally below 10,000 feet. Hail, occurring most often at the mature stage of a thunderstorm, can pummel and mutilate an airframe in seconds — especially when the hail is three-fourths of an inch or more across.
  • Severe to extreme icing shows up in the-mid level of the thunderstorm where the temperatures are between 0 and -20 degrees C.
  • Finally, lightning can be a deadly hazard to aircraft (as well as those on the ground). Lightning discharges occur most frequently at the 32-degree Fahrenheit and 15-degree Fahrenheit levels in the thunderstorm. Incidentally, flash rates approaching once per second have been correlated with over 90-mph updrafts.

The fickle finger of fate gave these two men an up close and personal look at the inside of a thunderstorm, and Col. Rankin even wrote a book about it, called The Man Who Rode the Thunder — which, unfortunately, is no longer in print.

Editor’s Note: These men were *very* lucky. A very few daring, though misguided, hang glider pilots have been sucked into developing thunderclouds only to reappear hundreds of miles away, burnt and frozen solid, with the wreckage of their craft.