According to the National Weather Service, lightning strikes about 25 million times a year and kills an average of 49 people. But how often does it strike planes?
Believe it or not, it’s estimated that every plane in the U.S. commercial fleet is struck by lightning at least once every year. The event is described as a loud bang and a flash of light as the lightning goes through the plane. You can sometimes experience the smell of ozone, too. It’s got to be as scary as anything! In fact, I’m sure it might freak some people out, especially if they’re afraid of flying in the first place (if you are or know somebody who is, read this for some ideas to possibly help that).
But are you safe when all that happens?
The last U.S. commercial plane crash that was due to lightning happened in the 1960s (the fuel tank exploded). Since that unfortunate event 50-something years ago, many techniques have been developed to reduce the threat of lightning to a plane. Modern-day planes are made with a whole lot of aluminum, which is very conductive to electricity. That allows the lightning to arc through the fuselage, even from the wings and nose, and then exit through the tail. It also leaves the insides (and people!) intact and doesn’t even bother all the wiring and computers or even fuel tank on the plane, because they’re all grounded and/or isolated/protected.
Some ultra-modern planes such as the Boeing 777x and 787, as well as the Airbus A350 are being made with composite materials like carbon fiber that is even lighter than, but not as conductive, like aluminum. To work around that, plane manufacturers intentionally put wiring within the fuselage that’s attractive to lightning. The wiring isn’t connected to anything but allows the lightning to pass through the plane in a similar fashion as those with aluminum.
Of course, a plane that’s hit by lightning in mid-flight undergoes a thorough inspection after it’s landed, but in most cases that there little to no damage found.
So yeah – being in a plane and having it be hit by lightning must be as scary as anything, but at least you know that chances are you’re safe. Whew!
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary