The Liberty Gazette
August 14, 2018Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Linda: When you were a kid, did you wonder if you could stand on a cloud? Perhaps jump from cloud to cloud, playing tag with your friends. It’s probably not an uncommon thing for kids to imagine, and the childhood fantasy is harmless. Once we understand the science of cloud formations, thunderstorms, and the lift that is part of their existence, we know the real thing isn’t so harmless.
Now this may seem unrelated, but hang with me.
Charles Peirce is ancestor on my dad’s mom’s side of the family. He lived in Philadelphia and published his extensive research of 57 years, called “A Meteorological Account of the Weather in Philadelphia, from January 1, 1790 to January 1, 1847.” I have a copy and though I’ve not read every single entry, I don’t think there’s any mention of “cloud suck.”
Cloud suck is a condition inside towering cumulus clouds when, due to the physics of heat exchange, columns of saturated air rise with such force they vacuum up whatever is right below the cloud. This phenomenon affects mostly paragliders and hang gliders that get too close to the cumulus base. They don’t have enough power to get away.
Seventy-four years after Uncle Charles finished his book, William Henry Rankin was born in nearby Pittsburgh. He would grow up to be Lieutenant Colonel Rankin, and he would discover firsthand what “cloud suck” is like.
Mike: Normally, jets can manage going around or over (but well above) thunderstorms. Unfortunately, on July 26, 1959 Rankin’s F-8 Crusader fighter jet had an engine failure right as he crossed above one of those cumulonimbus clouds. Even more unfortunately, he had no choice but to eject and parachute right into the violent storm.
Rankin was a Marine, a veteran of the Second World War and the Korean War. No doubt his experience taught him not to give up. The loud bang from the engine while at 47,000 feet didn’t stop him from doing what he needed to do next. When a fire warning light flashed he pulled the lever for auxiliary power. The fact that the lever broke off in his hand didn’t deter him. Neither did the fact that he had to eject into minus 58 degrees. In spite of the physical trauma to his body, he didn’t panic. He donned emergency oxygen. But the bad luck didn’t stop.
After flailing for five minutes in freezing air, his parachute not deployed, the low atmospheric pressure inside the storm triggered a barometric switch and his chute opened at 10,000 feet. Keep in mind, inside the storm he couldn’t see a thing. But he could feel the brutal roller coaster ride, the pelting hailstones and drowning rain.
Spewed out of the storm, Rankin landed in a forest forty minutes after he ejected. Of course, he wrote a book about it, and you may want to read it—The Man Who Rode the Thunder.