Thunder Drop: Life Inside a Thunderstorm


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.

The F-8U Crusader

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

Book Review: Rocket Man

Rocket Man

This is only the second book about the Apollo era that I have read. And it’s a slightly different theme to Apollo 13 (or Lost Moon). They’re both similar in the respect that it’s two pilots pursuing their love for aviation and wanting to be at the cutting edge of the frontier. But Apollo 13 is about a mans dream to walk on the surface of the Moon and that dream being cruelly ripped away from him. Apollo 13, I felt went into detail about how the spacecraft worked and on the difficulties of getting to the Moon (and back). ‘Rocket Man’ couldn’t be anymore different.

Throughout the book we follow the much more recent story of N10BD, a Learjet 35, where Pete Conrad is one of the pilots trying to break the world record for a round the world flight in the shortest time. It was a bit strange to have it there, but it appeared to work and fitted in with the rest of the book.

The book goes back a long time. All the way back to the 1700’s where we see how Pete’s family came to be in America, how they flourished, and eventually how it all went downhill. The story is more about Pete’s personal love of aviation and engineering than anything else, and I was particularly shocked as to how little there was on him actually being on the Moon and generally on the Apollo program itself.

The subtitle of the book is ‘Astronaut Pete Conrad’s Incredible Ride To The Moon And Beyond’ and it really is beyond. We learn that Apollo 12 was, to him, not the greatest achievement to him as an astronaut. We learn about the Skylab program, how he was one of the stations architects, how he fixed the thing when it broke in space and how he lived on it for a month.

Towards the end of the book we see the sad side-effects of the life Pete Conrad lived. After being constantly busy, working 70-odd hour weeks for 20+ years, he realised he doesn’t know his family (a situation seemingly familiar with most Apollo astronauts). He ends up divorcing his wife and watches his youngest child by of cancer.

He goes to work for McDonnell Douglas, promoting and test flying their DC-10 and being involved in the investigation after one fatally crashed, grounding the entire fleet. He then moves on to private industry, and how it is they, not NASA, that need to lead the way in space. And he sets off on his own voyage to achieve this.

I found this book extremely interesting and enjoyable. Pete’s vibrant and colourful persona comes across easily, and it’s a funny read. The only issues I have is that the chapters are bizarrely short, something I’ve not come across before (there are nearly 60) and each contains about a maximum of 5 pages. I found this bizarre and unnecessary. Still, a great read, and highly recommended. Lacking in the details on the space program itself, this remains a great book.

Book Review: Into the Storm

Into the Storm

‘What starts as a breeze…can turn into a monster’. And the monstrosities that begin as a breeze are what this book is all about. The full title of the book ‘Into the Storm: Violent Tornadoes, Killer Hurricanes and Death-Defying Adventures in Extreme Weather’ certainly gets you etching to start reading this book.

For a weather nut like me this was a must read. Not only does this book deal with severe weather but also Reed Timmer’s unending fascination with science. How he started off struggling at university and then eventually achieving his PhD. It delves into how he was suddenly thrown into the media spotlight after some video footage of a destructive tornado and how he comes to make money out of sending these videos to news centres. Reed developed a new storm chasing style, much appalled by conservative storm chasers, that pushed him into the core of storms and eventually right inside a tornado. Reed risks relationships and exams to chase and it deals with the horrific effects of a tornado destroying entire towns, the emotional problems that develop as a result, but also how storm chasers are helping to better forecast tornadoes, increase warning times and ultimately save lives.


As the title suggests though, this isn’t just about tornadoes. I found that some of the most exciting reading was during the chase of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the costliest natural disaster in US history.

Reed doesn’t only describe to you what he’s see’s and what he feels though. He describes what’s going on and explains, in uncomplicated detail, how these storms start and end up producing tornadoes. You can garner his infectious (sometimes mad and bonkers) enthusiasm and lust to know more about these incredible phenomena.

This book left me much more informed about tornadoes and severe weather and how they operate, and further enhanced my love for the weather. Our atmosphere can do truly extraordinary things. The book has even left me contemplating traveling to America later in the year to go storm chasing. It’s expensive, but I just want, I need, to see one of these things up close.

Reed also features in the Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers. If you’ve never seen it take a look at this YouTube clip. It’s just the opening titles, but it’s still exciting.

Book Review: My Life on Mars

My Life on Mars: The Beagle 2 Diaries - Click image to be redirected to Amazon

My Life on Mars: The Beagle 2 Diaries by Prof Colin Pillinger.

First of all, please bear in mind that it has taken me quite a while to read this book – I’ve been rather busy over the last few months with OU studies and so on.

I was 13 on Christmas Day 2003, when Beagle 2 was due to land on Mars. I had got up extra early to pop and the news and see what had happened. It wasn’t good news.

Since then though I have always been astonished that we actually sent a mission to land on Mars, we the British people had made a lander to look for the signs of life on another world. I needed to know how it was done – finally Colin’s book came out.

It’s quite an intense book, there’s a lot of information, a lot of names to follow. I found at times that this made it slightly difficult to read, having to head back a few pages to figure out which person was being discussed now. I understand that in a project as grand as this a lot of people are involved, and at the end of the day the story needs to be told.

In this book we learn about Colin’s family history, his youth, how he became interested in science and eventually how he sent a lander to Mars. I had no idea how difficult it could be. The meetings, the letters, the phone calls, the arguments. I was very surprised about the European Space Agency, this book has changed my opinion of them, and not in a good way. Infact near the end I quite liked this quote regarding ESA ‘The way things are going the Universe will end before ESA arrives on Mars’, this referring to their Aurora programme.

If you’re interested in space exploration and want to understand how a space mission works and is put together this is a must read. It had me laughing and gasping in shock, you’ll enjoy it.

It’s 4 out of 5 from me!

Next book – The God Delusion by Prof Richard Dawkins (finally!)

Book Review: Riding Rockets

Riding Rockets by Astronaut Mike Mullane.

I had just watched Space Shuttle Atlantis land for the final time. I was incredibly sad, but happy. The great ship that inspired my love of science and space had come to a final stop. I knew a bit about the shuttle program, or so I thought. It was time to read someone’s first hand experience of this mighty spaceship. Riding Rockets was the obvious place to look.

At T-6 seconds the cockpit shook violently. Engine start. This is it, I thought. In spite of my fear, I smiled. I was headed into space. It was really going to happen.

5…4…The vibrations intensified as the SSMEs sequentially came on line. Then, the warble of the master caution system grabbed us.

This superb read takes us all through Mike Mullanes life. The horrors of the initial astronaut medical exam, flying in Vietnam, his childhood and the shocking bureaucracy and management at NASA.

This book had me in fits of laughter, and I mean extreme laughter! It bought a tear to my eye, the pages discussing Challenger are particularly heart-wrenching. It had me shocked and in immense curiosity. His descriptions of life at NASA are honest, sometimes jaw-droppingly honest. This book made me appreciate the space programme a lot more, the sacrifices that have to be made, the lessons that need to be learnt.

If your interested in spaceflight, get this book, it’s a no brainer. If you want a laugh and understand what these great people do, buy this book. It is an utterly superb read. 5 stars from me! (If you want to buy it, click here, it’ll take you to the page on Amazon).

If you need some inspiration. Watch this:

My next book – My Life on Mars: The Beagle Diaries by Prof Colin Pillinger