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=========== IA in the News ==========

From the Decatur Daily News
Decatur, Illinois - April 13, 2001

Fantasy flights
Decatur couple experience new horizons on Russian trip

Rex Rankin III turned on a videocassette recorder, igniting the room in fire and thunder as he relived his trip to "the edge of space" in a Russian jet fighter plane.

Rex and Sharon Rankin enjoy a respite from flying Russian jet fighter planes for some shopping in downtown Moscow.
Courtesy Photos
Rex and Sharon Rankin enjoy a respite from flying Russian jet fighter planes for some shopping in downtown Moscow.

With the Decatur insurance executive strapped into the pilot's seat for the best of views, the MiG-25 roared down the runway, the engine's afterburners already blazing to build up speed. His host, a former Russian Air Force test pilot, sat behind him in the co-pilot's seat.

Rankin, 48, was making his final flight from Zhukovsky Air Force Base at Gromov Flight Research Institute, 30 miles southeast of Moscow, capping three days of flying in four different fighters.

As his wife, the former Sharon Lee Bell of Huntsville, watched from the ground, the largest of Russia's MiGs leveled off at 50,000 feet, built up speed once again and, racing at 2.5 times the speed of sound, soared to a top altitude of 80,000 feet. In comparison, airliners usually cruise between 30,000 and 40,000 feet.

"We're at the edge of space," Rankin said, almost in a whisper. "It's minus 50 to 60 degrees, and it's eerily quiet, so smooth, and above is blackness. It's as if you're sitting still, and you can actually see Earth rotating under you. You think how fragile it is, in the scheme of things in the universe, and realize you come from a special planet."

Rankin said he understands pioneer astronauts' descriptions of the awesome wonder of high altitude flights, and why so many private citizens today are interested in space travel.

While the Russian vacation and jet flights fulfilled a lifelong dream, his "spiritual journey" began when he was just 5. "That's when I walked out of the courthouse in Montgomery for my best-ever trip, with my parents to Decatur."

Rex and Jean Rankin, whom he describes as "the best-loving parents in the world," adopted him and two brothers. He doesn't talk in depth about the adoption.

"They're my parents, and there's no looking back," he said. "There never has been."

Dream in jeopardy

Rankin was flipping through a magazine while traveling on a passenger plane seven years ago, when he first noticed the ad about flying jets in Russia. It was placed by Incredible Adventures, a Sarasota, Fla., company. Recalling the number would be simple for an airplane enthusiast: 1-800-MIGSETC [1-800-644-7382].

As the years passed, he knew his hope of piloting jets was in serious jeopardy, and it wasn't until two years ago that he saw it as a possibility.

His life was in shambles, financially and physically.

"I was smoking, drinking and restless, and had so much anxiety about my perceptions of life," he said. "I was 25 pounds overweight, had heart problems and was destitute emotionally. To put it bluntly, I was in turmoil."

The 1970 Decatur High School graduate never doubted he had "a real zest for life, but I was trying to grab it up in gulps. I was always worried about tomorrow and not doing anything about joy in life today."

Rankin, who graduated in 1974 from Rhodes College in Memphis, soon realized he also suffered career burnout.

"Since I couldn't manage my own life, I knew I had to change everything in my life."

He began to know God and became at peace with himself. He stopped drinking and in March gave up cigarettes.

Decatur businessman Rex Rankin III piloted four Russian jet fighter planes during a week's vacation in Moscow, including this MiG-21.
Decatur businessman Rex Rankin III piloted four Russian jet fighter planes during a week's vacation in Moscow, including this MiG-21.

"I owe a great deal to a lot of people in Decatur for their patience with me," he said, "including my wife, my family, Dr. Ken Dunivant, pastor of First United Methodist Church, and colleagues at work. Sharon and I do a devotional every morning, and I spend time by myself to meditate. I try to address all areas of my existence, rather than just one or two. My pace has slowed to half what it was, and I'm loving every minute of it."

To get in shape to fly MiGs -- and to stay in good condition -- he's in the gym at 6 a.m., three or four times a week, working out with friends like Steve Armstrong, Jan Morris and Chet Humphries.

Rankin became enamored with flying as a youngster hanging out in a backyard apple tree.

"We'd watch planes go over, and they fascinated me. While I was in high school, Dad earned his private pilot's license, and wanting to be just like him, I got mine at 17."

Since there is no program in the United States for the public to fly military jets, Rankin turned to Russia, which once boosted the largest air force in the world with about 8,000 combat aircraft. The cash-strapped country was eager to offer the vacation package through the Florida agency.

His wife did not know Rankin also booked her for a flight in an L-39 Trainer, called the Albatross, until they were in a van headed for the airport.

"It was sort of a belated wedding gift," he said. The couple had married in January 1998. They each flew in separate planes, crisscrossing the sky.

In addition to the high-altitude MiG-25, Rankin also piloted a MiG-21 and MiG-29.

"The MiG-21 is a small plane with tiny wings, and it's like flying a fly," he said. "It's two men riding a rocket."

In the video, as he stepped from the plane, he waved a flat barf bag, evidence he did not get sick.

However, the camera inside the MiG-29 shows Rankin blacking out.

"I lost it for about 15 seconds, when my pilot did a double barrel roll to the right, then shot straight up. All of a sudden, I didn't know where I was."

Rankin and his wife joined five other Americans on the trip for a spin in an Aleutian MP-23, four-engine cargo plane that tumbled them into zero gravity.

"The plane, on which the Russians train their cosmonauts, goes to about 30,000 feet and drops quickly," he said. "During the flight, you're weightless 10 times, about 30 seconds each time."

The video captures a midair kiss as the Rankins somersaulted in a momentarily weightless world.

A civilian seen off to one side is in training for a space ride to the Russian space station Mir, for which he will pay $20 million. The images show that he clearly has an upset stomach.

"This trip to me was a milestone in my life and my spiritual growth," he said. "I hope it can be just a small message to others, that no matter what kind of problems they might have, with God's grace, they can get better. And dreams do come true."

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