Slideshow CK

The Museum’s participation in

the incredible story called “Riding Thunder”!

By David Wesley Tonkin

DVHAA – Wings of Freedom Aviation Museum Manager and Board Member

WOFAMpromotion 1On Tuesday, December the 13th, 2016, Marguerite Dunbar, a Producer of the highly acclaimed and popular nationwide and global TV series “Mysteries at the Museum” on the Travel Channel contacted me and asked if I wanted to work with her to tell the unique and incredible story of Lieutenant Colonel William Henry Rankin.

This was an awareness and promotional opportunity for our Museum that only comes once in a lifetime!


The Rankin story …

WOFAMRankinLieutenant Colonel William Henry Rankin (October 16, 1920 -July 6, 2009) was the only known person to survive a fall from the top of a cumulonimbus
thunderstorm cloud!

He was an aviator in the United States Marine Corps and a World War II and Korean War veteran. He was flying an F-8 Crusader jet fighter
over a cumulonimbus cloud when the engine failed, forcing him to eject and parachute into the cloud.

Lieutenant Colonel Rankin wrote a book about his experience,
"The Man Who Rode the Thunder"

On July 26, 1959, Rankin was flying from Naval Air Station South Weymouth, Massachusetts to Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in South Carolina. He climbed over a thunderhead that peaked at 45,000 feet; then at 47,000 feet and at Mach 0.82 he heard a loud bump and rumble from the engine. The engine stopped, and a fire warning light flashed.

He pulled the lever to deploy auxiliary power, and it broke off in his hand. Though not wearing a pressure suit, at 6:00 pm he ejected into the 50 °C (−58 °F) air. He suffered immediate frostbite, and decompression caused his eyes, ears, nose, and mouth to bleed. His abdomen swelled severely. He did, however, manage to make use of his emergency oxygen supply.

Five minutes after he abandoned the plane, his parachute had not opened. While in the upper regions of the thunderstorm, with near-zero visibility, the parachute opened prematurely instead of at 10,000 feet due to the storm affecting the barometric parachute switch to open.

After ten minutes, Rankin was still aloft, carried by updrafts and getting hit by hailstones. Violent spinning and pounding caused him to vomit. Lightning appeared, which he described as blue blades several feet thick, and thunder that he could feel. The rain forced him to hold his
breath to keep from drowning. One lightning bolt lit up the parachute, making Rankin believe he had died at 39 years old!

Conditions calmed, and he descended into a forest. His watch read 6:40 pm. It had been 40 minutes since he ejected. He searched for help and eventually was admitted into a hospital at Ahoskie, North Carolina. He suffered from frostbite, welts, bruises, and severe decompression.

The Museum’s contributions …

IMG 8964 croppedFirstly; what made us a logical choice for the “Riding Thunder” story was that we have a beautifully restored and eminently photogenic Vought F8U-1 Crusader in Marine Corps livery … the aircraft Lieutenant Colonel Rankin was flying!

The second factor was that I immediately pledged to devote three months of intensive and exacting reporting, research, location scouting and distance measurements, location photography, aircraft photography, strategic and logistical planning and detailed minute-by-minute planning for the day of the on-site shooting at the Museum. This was followed by many more hours on post-production work on providing input for scripting and promotional captions.

During this time there were more than 50 emails, reports and photographs that flowed back-and-forth with the production team; in addition to planning teleconferences! I want to thank our President Mark Hurwitz for all his considerable support and material assistance in the critical planning and negotiating phases. I also want to thank our Thursday Crew Chief Ron Whetstone and his Crew for so cheerfully, willingly and professionally helping me make sure the logistics were 100% perfect on the day of the shoot. All of the detailed location planning photography was done by J. J. Paskill … great job! Thank you J. J.!

I also acknowledge the exceptional expertise, guidance and encouragement from Producer Marguerite Dunbar and her highly professional, skilled and friendly team from the production company and the Travel Channel!

IMG 8969All of this effort culminated in being able to publicize on Monday, March 27th 2017 on our Facebook Page that we are thrilled to announce the Wings of Freedom Aviation Museum's participation in the widely popular and highly acclaimed "Mysteries at the Museum" TV series on the nationwide and global network, The Travel Channel!

The show's host Don Wildman digs into the world’s greatest institutions to unearth extraordinary relics that reveal incredible secrets from the past. Through compelling interviews, rare archival footage and arresting recreations, “Mysteries at the Museum” illuminates the hidden treasures at the heart of history’s most incredible triumphs, sensational crimes and bizarre encounters.

The Wings of Freedom Aviation Museum's segment, entitled “Riding Thunder” is currently planned to be in episode 1311, premiering on Thursday, March 30th, 2017 at 10:00 PM (ET/PT)

The show is also scheduled for:

Friday, March 31, 2017 – 1 am Eastern | 12 am Central

Sunday, April 9, 2017 – 12 pm Eastern | 11 pm Central

Thursday, April 20, 2017 – 7 pm Eastern | 6 pm Central

The episode will also be shown on the Travel Channel’s Mountain and Pacific schedules.

Following these scheduled showings the episode will be in the rerun schedule and available on the Travel channel’s Website


The image of Lieutenant Colonel William Henry Rankin is a work of a U.S. Navy person or employee, taken or made as part of that person's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain in the United States.

The three photographs in the header compilation are Copyright of The Travel Channel; and we gratefully acknowledge their use.

The “Mysteries at the Museum” logo is a Trademark or Service Emblem Copyright to The Travel Channel; and we gratefully acknowledge its use.

The other photographs of the Crusader are Copyright of the Wings of Freedom Aviation Museum.