Skydiving is not an activity for the faint-hearted — and it is no surprise that enthusiasts steer clear of thunderclouds, to avoid being struck by lightning.
Downdraughts and updraughts during storms can also send a skydiver hurtling upwards or blasting downwards.
Yet the stuntman and skydiver Sean MacCormac set out to surf a thundercloud in Florida recently. The state is well known as the lightning capital of the US because of its humid summers and the convergence of storm fronts from the Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico and the Florida Keys.
MacCormac’s plan encountered an unexpected initial hitch because the familiar summer thunderstorms were suppressed by high pressure. Finally, he spotted a thunderstorm this month. He jumped from an aircraft at two miles high with his feet strapped to a surfboard, riding the edge of the thundercloud at up to 130mph as lightning bolts flashed less than a quarter mile away.
“The whole thing lights up like a big ball of some otherworldly thing,” MacCormac reported on the Red Bull website. “You might as well be on Mars or wherever your imagination will lend itself.”
A video of the skydive can be viewed at http://win.gs/29UAmYp
Others have had more terrifying experiences in thunderstorms. In 2007 Ewa Wisnierska, a German paraglider, was unexpectedly sucked into a thunderstorm. In ten minutes she shot up to six miles (9.7km) high, which is higher than Mount Everest. She experienced temperatures of minus 50C, temporarily lost consciousness from a lack of oxygen, was pounded by hailstones and narrowly avoided being struck by lightning.
“You can’t imagine the power,” she said. “You feel like nothing, like a leaf from a tree going up.”
She recovered consciousness and after about an hour managed to land safely 40 miles away, with her flying suit encased in ice. She suffered frostbite as a result of the intense cold but was otherwise unharmed.