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What Happens When Lightning Strikes A Plane?

by SharonKurheg

About 100 lightning strikes happen per second on planet Earth. That adds up to billions of strikes per year and yes, several of them happen to planes – about 43,000 flights per year (figure 117 per day).

You’d think that’d be pretty dangerous, right? Believe it or not, it’s not. Here’s why…

Thanks to FAA regulations, planes are protected as much as possible from lightning. Air traffic control will divert planes either around or over thunderstorms, so they won’t get hit by lightning. Sometimes the storm is so big, or is going over an airport, in which case air traffic might be stopped for a period of time until it’s safe to fly again (this happens just about every afternoon in Orlando in the summer, when we have near daily thunderstorms that last about 15 to 20 minutes).

But even then, commercial and other large planes still get hit by lightning, on average about once per year, per plane (smaller planes get hit by lighting too, but not as often).

The last commercial plane crash in the U.S. that was confirmed to be caused by lightning happened in 1967. The plane’s fuel tank exploded as a result of the bolt, according to Scientific American. In the 50-something years since, more things have been developed to decrease the damage lightning can do.

The exterior skins of planes are traditionally mostly aluminum. Aluminum is a great conductor of electricity, so when lightning strikes it (usually onto something pointy like the nose, tail or wingtip), it stays on the outside, following the skin, until it exits through another pointy area. It never reaches inside, so that keeps passengers safe.

The exteriors of more modern-day planes are made of composite materials. These materials would typically burn if struck by lightning. So a metal mesh is incorporated into the skin. It acts as a lightning rod so that, again, electricity can enter and exit through pointy areas, and not put passengers in danger.

Because planes run on electrical parts and have those big fuel tanks, the areas that carry those components are grounded. That keeps those areas safe.

So what happens when lightning strikes a plane? Not much. You might see a flash of light and/or hear a loud noise when it happens, but no damage is done. If a pilot thinks the plane has been struck by lightning, (s) he’s reporting it so the plane can be inspected by maintenance when they get back on land, but that’s about it.

Here’s a video that explains a little more about it, along with some nice visuals.

Have you ever been on a plane that was struck by lightning? What was it like?

Feature Photo (cropped): USAF, Tech. Sgt. Anthony Petruzzi

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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary


1 comment

Glenn May 6, 2020 - 7:21 pm

Technically, it is impossible to ground anything in flight. Perhaps you mean they have a high-conductive (Faraday) cage around the tanks and components to shuttle any stray voltage to the frame and thereby distribute the load?


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