Those of you who know me know that I’m pretty intrigued by the weather and how it works. The single factor I’m mainly interested in though are cumulonimbus clouds…thunderstorms. As a child I remember kneeling on my bed peering out through the window into the night sky waiting for flashes of lightning and the accompanying thunder. Those flashes, those rumbles didn’t come from a machine or an animal, they came from the deep depths of natures most violent assemblage.
Thankfully over the last few years I’ve managed to learn a great deal about the clouds that form thunderstorms, what happens inside them, how they work and so. They’re a no go area for aircraft and I’m trained to recognise them before they’ve formed in order to let the flight crews know they’re around so they can avoid them.
We all know that thunderstorms produce thunder and lightning bu they a produce a huge arsenal of other phenomena too including: severe torrential downpours, hail (sometimes the size of baseballs), incredible gusts of wind, updrafts and downdrafts (where you can loose a 1,000 or more feet in a few seconds in an airplane) and worst of all tornadoes.
No one’s ever really been able to say what it’s like inside a thunderstorm though. People have been in them, flown through them but they didn’t live to tell the tale. That was until the incredible story of Lt Col William Rankin (aka The Man Who Rode The Thunder) came about in 1959. He was a marine corps aviator flying the supersonic F-8U Crusader. Ahead of him was a thunderstorm. No problem, the aircraft could easily fly over it at 50,000ft (the top of this thunderstorm was about 44,000ft, they can get to 60,000ft though). Then, right atop the thunderstorm, the engine failed…it wouldn’t come back online either. He wasn’t wearing a high altitude pressure suit (the higher you go the less air there is – think of taking a bottle of water on a plane) he had to eject.
He was immediately subjected to explosive decompression, severe wind and extensive frostbite (it was -50°C up there, then add the wind chill). His mouth, nose, eyes and ears started bleeding, the lower pressure having ruptured capillaries. The gases in his body expanded, his intestines, stomach and other organs expanding perhaps 3 times their normal size. He remarked in his book “I briefly glanced down at my abdomen and it had expanded to a size as if I were pregnant”. Then he went into the thunderstorm where things didn’t get much better.
His parachute was set to automatically open at 10,000ft, but the pressure being lower in a thunderstorm tricked it and it opened at about 15,000ft. It should take him less than 10 minutes to reach the ground. 40 minutes later he landed. The incredible updrafts in the storm kept him aloft for much, much longer. He described the lightning as blue blades several feet thick close enough the touch, he felt the thunder shuddering through every bone in his body, the rain, so intense, almost caused him to drown, and then the hail, the size of baseballs, whacking into him.
He survived to tell the tale. To my knowledge no other human being as ever experienced such an occurrence since.
…the unbelievable torture of a thunderstorm, the fright of it, the terrible physical beating, the twisting and turning and tumbling, the awesomeness of lightning so close it could almost be touched, the vibrating horror of thunder never meant for human ears, the fierce pounding of hail, the drenching of rain so torrential it might just as well have been an ocean suspended in the air…
- Lt Col William Rankin, from his book The Man Who Rode The Thunder