Gravity sucks. It's always keeping us down, preventing cars from hovering and cruelly denying people the God-given right to have Inception-like fights on the ceiling of hotel hallways. And yet, despite limitations, brave people throughout history have heroically told gravity to go straight to hell. And some of them even lived through it.
We're pretty sure that Colonel William Rankin experienced something that no other member of the human species has experienced. It kind of took a unique set of circumstances to pull it off.
Rankin was flying along in his fighter jet in 1959, zipping over some storm clouds at about 50,000 feet. He suddenly noticed a grinding noise coming from his engine, and quickly realized that the instruments in his cockpit were basically blinking "You're screwed" to him in Morse code. The plane only had the one engine -- Rankin was going down. So, he bailed out ... right into those storm clouds below.
"Clouds are nature's soggy pillows. They'll break my fall."
This being summer and North Carolina, Rankin wasn't exactly dressed for a blizzard. And when he first jumped out, it was still about 70 degrees, as far as he could tell. But when he got into that cloud, the temperature dropped to almost 70 below, causing insane decompression sickness (read: he turned into a tomato balloon), bleeding out of just about every orifice on his body (including his eyes) and major frostbite. But that wasn't going to stop Rankin. He stayed conscious enough to properly deploy his parachute. And here is where we find out what happens when you open a parachute into a vicious storm of winds swirling around at food processor speeds.
First, massive updrafts kept thrusting him back up into the storm, again and again. And again. A regular skydive from 50,000 feet would only take a couple minutes when it's all said and done. But Rankin was tossed around in this cloud for 40 fucking minutes, pelted by wind and hailstones the whole time, rain spraying in his face like a fire hose (he nearly drowned from it).
We repeat: This man almost drowned ... in the sky.
Finally, after what must have seemed like a solid year of free fall, Rankin was returned to Earth, where he promptly hit a tree with his face (he was wearing a helmet, but still). Battered and broken, he made his way to a road and unsuccessfully hitchhiked for a while before a brave soul took pity on him (he looked pretty rough) and drove him to a town where he could call an ambulance.
Unfortunately, Rankin did die after the incident. Fifty years later, at the age of 88.
As we have pointed out before, nobody in all of history was crazier than World War I fighter pilots. The entire concept of fighter planes was brand new, safety measures were nonexistent and the rules of dogfighting were being invented on the fly by the few whose brains were malfunctioning enough to take to the skies in rickety contraptions that were just as likely to crash on their own as they were to get shot down. We're talking about guys like Ormer Locklear.
Further proof that no sane man has that mustache.
While flying a mission in a plane called a Curtiss Jenny, Locklear experienced some engine trouble. He was left with one of two options:
A) Jump out of the plane, and hope like hell that the secondhand chute worked a whole lot better than that secondhand plane did.
B) Attempt to land a broken plane.
You could logically argue for either choice, despite neither being all that survivable in 1915. So, he went with option C, which was "Climb out of the plane and fix the engine yourself in midair."
"Good thing I brought my Philli- Fuck."
So, Locklear shrugged, got out of the cockpit, scurried up the body of the plane, looked the engine over and fixed a problem with a spark plug wire. Despite the fact that he was in the air. While clinging to an aircraft flying at high velocity, pelted by freezing winds. With no one piloting the craft he was clinging to.
He completed the repairs and successfully landed. When his superiors learned what he had done, they considered court martialing him, but decided against it when they realized that it was the most awesome thing they had ever heard. Thus, a career was born:
Yes, that's really him on the wing, and no, this isn't a special effect.
Feeling like that had gone pretty well, Locklear began to take up the "get out of the cockpit" thing more regularly. At the encouragement of his superiors, who felt that such death-defying antics were "good for morale," he would leave the cockpit for such to-do list items as repairing the radiator and getting a better look at some Morse code signals he'd had difficulty seeing from the cockpit.
Later on, the phenomenon of wing-walking became a Hollywood sensation, and Locklear left the Army in 1919 to repeat this stunt in several films before the law of averages decided that enough was enough and smote him once and for all: Locklear was killed while filming a stunt for a movie.
He died as he lived -- crazier than a sack full of shaved weasels.
While we at Cracked have touched on the inherent awesomeness that is hot-air ballooning here, and here, and here, can we all stop for a moment to appreciate the fact that hot-air ballooning can be just absurdly dangerous? You're going every bit as high as an airplane, but doing it in a freaking wicker basket.
"In the event of an emergency landing, this entire craft may be used as a coffin."
Yet, all the way back in 1804 -- a century before the Wright brothers -- the altitude record was set by a balloon at 23,000 feet. That's almost four and a half miles straight up, in a basket.
But that record would fall in 1862, when "ballooning partners" Henry Coxwell and James Glaisher set off from the awesomely named town of Wolverhampton to do some 19th century sciencey stuff. They pretty quickly cracked the barrier at 24,000 feet, and, feeling pretty good about themselves, started to get cocky.
Problems started at 26,000 feet, when Coxwell was forced to leave the basket and climb up some ropes to untangle the balloon's valve line.
Back then, everyone was just desperate to die.
Shortly thereafter, it became fairly difficult to breathe (since they were kind of approaching outer space, in a freaking basket), and Glaisher was struck blind and paralyzed in a matter of seconds. With no control of his faculties, he lost consciousness, leaving their fate to Coxwell, who around this time was noticing that his hands were starting to not work.
Even his wicked awesome mutton chop sideburns weren't enough to protect him from hypoxia and decompression sickness.
Coxwell, no doubt muttering "Nancy-boy" under his breath, attempted to regain control of the balloon as it sailed past the 30,000-foot mark (almost six miles up) into the upper atmosphere, only to find that his hands had turned black from frostbite and were officially no longer of any use to him. A dentist by trade, he was ironically forced to use his teeth to adjust the instruments and bring the two of them back to safety.
Glaisher began to come back around as the balloon made its decent and helped Coxwell regain the use of his hands, which no doubt spared him the indignity of having dicks drawn all over his face with a 19th century quill pen. All told, they had obliterated the world record by climbing to approximately 39,000 feet, more than seven miles up. How long until somebody in an airplane broke that record? Try 68 years.