Unfortunately, Rankin did die after the incident. Fifty years later, at the age of 88.
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.
Otto Lilienthal spent most of his life studying everything from Newtonian physics to bird anatomy in the interest of one day achieving glider-based flight. Then sometime around his 21st birthday, when young men feel their most invincible, he decided it was time to get some street cred. He and his brother Gustav slapped together a pair of wings out of sticks and canvas. They strapped the homemade wings to Otto's back, and then they found the biggest jumping off point that they could.
"No wicker basket? Are you mad!?!"
Naturally, Otto sank like a ... well, like a big German dude with some fake-ass wings strapped to his back. He crashed and burned and damn near got himself killed for his efforts. While the apparatus failed, for whatever reason the takeoff method still seemed like Lilienthal's best bet for success. Which means that the man crashed and damn near died, only to find another really high spot to jump from as soon as his bones were knit.
He kept at it until, somehow, he finally succeeded. He found a set of wings and a flying method that actually resulted in honest to goodness gliding. Otto would go on to create flying contraptions that were not only capable of inducing priapism in hardcore steampunk enthusiasts ...
... but more importantly, actually flew. Lilienthal set world records for sustained flights. His later models, particularly the Maihohe-Rhinow glider, were able to fly distances of nearly 1,200 feet. Considering that his predecessors in the field barely registered in the double digits, Lilienthal was clearly onto something.
If asked his secret to success, Lilienthal would no doubt list the following components:
A) Find a really, really steep hill.
B) Strap some shit to your back.
C) Try as hard as you can to die, and fail.
He was pretty much the Johnny Knoxville of the German Empire.
When your car decides it just isn't going to go another inch along the highway, you're usually going to be fine, and can either walk to the next gas station or call AAA or something. When you're flying over hostile Korean territory, however, you're basically out of luck.
Lieutenant Joe Logan was flying a routine mission in 1952, protecting his leader, Brigadier General James Robinson Risner, from harm while returning from a bombing run. As fate would have it, Logan did his job as a human shield and took some flak, causing his plane to lose almost all of its fuel. Risner, realizing that a bailout 60 miles away from base into hostile Korean territory would likely be fatal for Logan, considered his options. There were none -- they were in separate planes, and the other one had lost power. It's the kind of situation that could only be solved with cartoon logic.
"I learned everything I know from the Red Baron ... no, not that one, the beagle."
So, he just went with that. Attempting a completely unprecedented and utterly insane maneuver, Risner advised Logan to shut off his engine and then, probably thinking of the last time he had to push some honker 1950s car up the street, flew over to Logan and rammed the nose of his plane into Logan's tailpipe.
"Just the tip!!!"
This somehow did not cause both planes to immediately explode and go spinning to the ground below. The attached planes both remained aloft, as Risner tried to steer his plane with another entire plane crammed into his face, while being tossed around by turbulence.
Setting the all-time record for machinery ass-to-mouth, Risner's plane somehow successfully pushed Logan's over 60 miles through the air into friendly territory, where Logan could bail out. Sadly, Logan landed in water and drowned after becoming tangled in his parachute lines.
"-- and they didn't even call the next day."
We really could put Chuck Yeager's whole career on here. He spent a lifetime flying the sort of missions that would make a normal man's testicles crawl into his eye sockets. By age 22, Yeager had shot down over a dozen fighter planes and had 13 confirmed kills. Then he became a test pilot, whose job it was to literally fly things until they broke down at about a thousand miles an hour, just to see what would happen.
One time, while teaching at astronaut school, Yeager was flying an NF-104 -- a jet fighter already capable of going twice the speed of sound, with an extra rocket booster strapped onto it to make it go faster. It was designed to get up over 120,000 feet, 90 percent of the way to outer space (like we said, they trained astronauts in it).
So while flying one of these, the plane spun out of control, killing the engines in the process. Yeager was forced to parachute to safety, but "safety" might be the wrong word, considering that this caused him to sail through a geyser of his own burning jet fuel.
"Just be grateful I didn't drag you through a storm cloud."
The fuel burned through his suit, which was full of oxygen, and his freaking head caught on fire. Though no one knows how, he managed to put the fact that he was suffering from a case of Ghost Rider skull out of his mind long enough to figure out a way to unscrew the oxygen-filled space helmet he'd been wearing, partially melting his left index finger in the process. At this point, we'd like to remind the reader that all of this was happening as Chuck was hurtling toward Earth at about 60 miles per hour, with a partially malfunctioning parachute.
Incredibly, Yeager pried the helmet off and stuck the landing in the middle of the desert. With a partially melted hand, he packed the suit away neatly and properly before making the hike to a nearby highway. A passing motorist who witnessed the crash was the first one to find Yeager standing more or less at attention with his helmet tucked into the crook of his elbow like Buck Friggin' Rogers. The motorist, a civilian, took one look at Yeager's injuries and threw up by the side of the road.
"Was it something you ate?"
But Yeager healed up just fine, and went on to bomb the hell out of Vietnam for a couple of years and basically continue to fly around not giving a damn. He's considered the godfather of pilots, and if you ever doubted that for a moment, consider this: If you've ever noticed that, on any flight you've ever been on, all pilots basically talk the same, there's a pretty good reason for that. It's because they're all doing an imitation of Chuck Yeager's voice. Really.
For more from Gabriel, you can follow him on Twitter, and he'd really like it if you checked out his friends' band The Ranks. Will Millar's first horror novel, Infernal Machines, is coming this August, or you can just follow him on Twitter.
For more people who fought reason and lost, check out 6 People Who Died In Order To Prove A (Retarded) Point. Or learn how you can kick gravity in the balls in 6 Death-Defying Stunts That Are Secretly Easy to Do.