Planes are often thought of as being very safe, but they aren’t immune from lightning strikes, and other forms of meteorological phenomena.
In fact, lightning strikes occur a lot more frequently than you would think on a commercial flight.
Read on to learn about lightning itself, how often planes are hit by lightning, what happens to planes during storms, and how they are equipped to deal with lightning.
What is Lightning?
Lightning is a type of electrical discharge that occurs between clouds and the ground. When a cloud is hit by sunlight, water vapor gets superheated, creating a spark.
This causes an electric charge to build up until it reaches a critical point where it discharges through the air – producing a bolt of lightning, which we are all familiar with, and a clap of thunder.
Lightning is a natural phenomenon that happens every day, but it’s also dangerous. So, what happens if a plane is flying through a lightning storm? And what occurs if a plane is actually hit by lightning.
Do Planes Get Struck By Lightning?
Despite what you might be thinking, planes are struck by lightning all the time.
Any given aircraft that is used for commercial flying services is struck by lightning an average of once every year – so that gives you an idea of how many planes are struck by lightning every day!
That being said, there are some factors that affect how likely a plane is to be struck by lightning. Unsurprisingly, planes flying over thunderstorms are most likely to be struck by lightning.
Flying over the poles or near the equator also increases the chances of getting hit. Even just flying over Florida will increase your chances of being struck by lightning, compared to flying over the West Coast.
Why Do Planes Get Struck By Lightning?
Aluminum is the most common metal used in planes today.
This metal is a good electrical conductor – so lighting is attracted towards the electrical path of the least resistance in its quest to the earth (in the same way that metal lighting rods on your house are a conductor, and provide the path of the least resistance down to the ground).
When high in the air, planes are often the largest (or even only!) solid object for miles – meaning that when caught in static or storms, lightning from far and wide is drawn to the plane.
How Are Planes Designed to Withstand Lightning Strikes?
Though it sounds counterintuitive, when lightning hits a plane, the aluminum body protects the passengers inside.
The lightning bolt will hit a protruding part of the plane, such as the wings or the nose, and then energy travels towards the body of the plane (which is where all the passengers are – eek!).
Thankfully, though, the fuselage acts like a Faraday cage, protecting the passengers inside, and allowing the voltage to move along the outside of the aircraft.
Most of the time, lightning strikes are dangerous because they cause fires – rather than because they cause electrocution.
There are a lot of planes in the sky that aren’t all made out of metal now – any are constructed out of composite parts, and have areas of the body that are fiberglass or carbon fiber laminate.
Composite materials are made up of layers of different types of material.
To avoid fires breaking out, areas that have been made out of composite materials also have to be reinforced with additional lightning protectants, especially if they are in common places for lightning strikes.
Carbon fiber laminates are used in aircraft construction. Lightning strikes are caused by differences in electrical potential between two places. An embedded layer of copper foil is used to protect composite materials.
Does Lighting Interfere With Plane Instruments?
Lightning strikes occur when an electrical discharge moves from a cloud to the ground. Pilots sometimes experience a short circuit in the cockpit due to lightning strikes.
The planes’ protective skin protects most of the plane’s interior, but faults can occasionally lead to the electrical current affecting the sensitive electronics inside.
Lightning strikes can harm electronic equipment such as control panels or instruments. Electrical components need to be protected by shielding, grounding, and voltage-reducing devices.
However, this will probably never cause dire harm to the aircraft’s instruments – you may see a flash and hear a bang, and the pilot may report flickering lights or brief instrument interference.
But, with the proper aircraft maintenance, all the necessary instruments will be back up in no time.
Each piece of essential equipment and circuitry for safe flight and landing has to be specifically protected by electrical shielding, grounding, and electronic surge suppression.
That being said, Boeing has said that very strong lightning strikes do have the potential to damage less essential components, such as fuel valves, power feeders, the generators, and even electrical distribution systems.
How Likely is it that Lightning Causes an Incident During My Flight?
Lightning usually doesn’t cause any damage. Only an estimated 0.26% of aircraft accidents are due to lightning strikes.
Out of the 3000 aircraft incidents that have been reported in the 19 years since 2000, only 8 have been attributed to lightning.
A few examples – an Air New Zealand plane had to divert to Christchurch because of a lightning strike.
An Emirates A380 was stranded when it was struck by multiple bolts of lightning while coming in for landing in Munich.
However, it seems to be that there is a far greater risk to individual safety outside the plane as a result of lightning strikes, rather than passengers inside.
This means that people who work alongside planes, such as maintenance workers, mechanics, or airport workers, are more at risk.
Often, they are particularly vulnerable because they’re working near the wings of an airplane, which attract lightning.
For example, very unfortunately, a maintenance worker from Vietnam Airlines died in September 2021 after being struck by a bolt of lighting whilst he was checking the wing of a grounded aircraft during a storm.
In conclusion, lightning does strike planes pretty frequently, so if you are an aspiring pilot, then it is likely that you will experience a lightning strike.
However, if you are flying over thunderstorms, then you should take extra precautions. It’s always better to be safe than sorry!