HEROES: The Nightmare Fall

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"I'd see lightning. Boy, do I remember that lightning. I never exactly heard the thunder; I felt it. I remember falling through hail, and that worried me; I was afraid the hail would tear the chute. Sometimes I was falling through heavy water—I'd take a breath and breathe in a mouthful of water. Sometimes I had the sensation I was looping the chute. I was blown up and down as much as 6,000 feet at a time. It went on for a long time, like being on a very fast elevator, with strong blasts of compressed air hitting you."

Getting Warmer. "At one point I got seasick and heaved. I went up and joined the chute. It draped over me like a sheet, and I was afraid that when I blossomed again, I'd be tangled in the shrouds and risers. But I wasn't, thank God. At last, I realized I was getting warmer. The air was smooth. And rain was falling on me. I figured I was down to 300 or 500 feet. I told myself, 'All I have to do now is make a good landing.' "

Swept by stiff ground winds, his chute fouled in a tree, and Pilot Rankin slammed headfirst into the tree trunk. He got up groggily, stiff, cold and numb, with his crash helmet knocked askew. He stumbled into a thicket, was for a moment almost hysterical. Then to himself: "You've come this far down for this? Let's get organized." He began walking a procedural-square search, found himself after two 90° turns on a country road. A dozen cars passed him as he stood on the road, wet, bloody, vomit-stained and haggard, and waving feebly. Finally a car slowed ("Stop," a small boy cried to his father, "there's a jet pilot standing in the road!"), took him to a country store, where he collapsed on the floor while waiting for an ambulance to carry him to a hospital in Ahoskie, N.C.

Last week, at the Beaufort (pronounced Bewfirt) Naval Hospital, where he is recovering from frostbite and shock, Pilot Rankin forecast, "I'll be back in the air in a month." But the Marine Corps had other ideas. The medics were not likely to certify him for duty that early, although his injuries seemed to be remarkably minor. Even if they did, Pilot Rankin's next duty, according to orders on the docket, will be a nine-month general-staff course at Quantico, where good officers get better and a pilot can still get enough flight time to keep his hand in.

*On ejection, the cable that yanks the seat free also trips a safety lever that sets the parachute's aneroid barometer into action. As the pilot falls, the increasing pressure compresses the metal diaphragm of the barometer. When the barometer records a pressure normal to 10,000 feet (the altitude was considerably higher in Rankin's case, because of the barometric turbulence of the storm), a strong spring releases the ripcord pin and the chute opens.

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