What Happens If Lightning Strikes A Plane?

Hurricane Season is officially underway in Florida. But this doesn’t just mean hurricanes. In Florida, afternoon thunderstorms occur more days than not during the summer. Our favorite judge, Judge Willa Carson, lives in Tampa, which is called the lightning capital of the country. She doesn’t have to travel for work often, but she enjoys traveling. Does this mean she needs to stay home during hurricane/lightning season? Is this why, in Cold Justice, she chooses to fly to Michigan in the winter?

Captain John Cox, a retired airline captain with US Airways who runs his own aviation safety consulting company, assures us that planes are, in fact, designed to withstand a lightning strike. Usually, he says, a lightning strike hitting a plane just leaves a small burn mark or hole at the entry and exit points.

Personally, I don’t like the sound of lightning leaving a couple small holes in a plane! But writing mysteries and thrillers, this made me wonder…

Lightning Flash

So, do you want the Good News or the Bad News first?

We’ll go with the Potentially Bad News. Airplanes often actually trigger lightning when they’re flying through a cloud that’s heavily charged. Yikes! Don’t tell Kim Otto! (Just kidding. I’m sure she already knows.)

Now, quickly, the Good News: Estimates show that every single plane in the U.S. commercial fleet gets hit by lightning at least once every year. And how often do we hear about this? Never, right? Safe to assume lightning striking a plane is not catastrophic.

The last confirmed commercial plane crash in the U.S. directly attributed to lightning occurred in 1967, when lightning caused a catastrophic fuel tank explosion. Since then, much has been learned about how lightning can affect airplanes. As a result, protection techniques have improved. Today, airplanes receive a rigorous set of lightning certification tests to verify the safety of their designs.
-Scientific American

Here’s what happens when a plane encounters lightning. The lightning will initially hit an extremity of the plane, like the nose or the tip of the wing. Then, the airplane actually flies through that flash of lightning, acting as a part of the electric circuit between oppositely-charged clouds. The current will end up leaving the plane through another extremity, like the tail.

The reason the current is able to travel smoothly over the exterior of the plane is because all of the surfaces are bonded. This means that all metal parts of the plane are connected, and are designed to have roughly the same amount of static charge. Because the plane’s surfaces are bonded, the current stays on the exterior of the plane and has a path to pass back into the atmosphere. Smart, right??

After lightning hits a plane, once in a while, one or more generators may be tripped offline. This could cause lighting in the plane to go dark, including low-level aisle lighting. Not a problem, according to Captain John Cox. The generator will be reset and all will be back to normal.


So what about all the computers and instruments that help operate the plane? Can a surge reach that equipment? That’s what engineers are for. They are aware of the challenge lightning presents, and they take measures specifically to safeguard the equipment — like using surge suppression devices.

Now you may be wondering, what about that plane that crashed in 1967 because of a spark caused by fuel after a lightning strike? Changes have been made to planes since then. These days, the materials around the fuel tanks are extremely thick. So thick, that they can withstand a burn. All joints, fasteners, doors, and caps around the fuel tank are extremely tight and have been tested to be able to withstand lightning. Plus, the fuel that is used nowadays is less explosive than in the past.

I’m grateful for technological developments that keep us safer!
For more assurance on why planes are a safe form of travel, check out these two blog posts I wrote about airplane travel:
Air Travel Worst Case Scenarios
Before We Board, Jets Are Tested To The Max

Meanwhile --

Caffeinate and Carry On!

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