When Lightning Strikes Airplanes: A Look at Flight Safety

Having your plane struck by lightning sounds scary but you may be better protected than you know?

Credit: Flickr/Bo Insogna

Lightning strikes each plane in the US about once a year

Although lightning strikes to airplanes are fairly uncommon, they’re generally not very dangerous

While the exact cause of a plane crash that killed one person in Colombia last year has yet to be confirmed, there is speculation that a bolt of lightning may be to blame. So just how often do airplanes get hit by lightning and what are the usual consequences?

Lightning can be frightening at the best of times — even when you’re safely tucked behind concrete walls on solid ground, so the idea of a bolt striking a fuel-filled plane mid-air is kind of scary, to say the least. But, surprisingly, it happens more often than you might think.

When Lightning Strikes Airplanes

It’s estimated that lightning strikes each plane in the U.S. commercial fleet about once a year, or roughly once every 3,000 flight hours. These strikes occur without any serious consequence.
 That’s because modern technology has ensured today’s airliners are well equipped to handle lightning bolts.

A video from a few years ago shows a 747 that was struck by lightning shortly after takeoff. While the impact looks frightening from afar, the plane comes away virtually unscathed.

The same goes for a Qantas flight that was videotaped while making a descent into Sydney, Australia. You can see the lightning hit the plane and sparks fly — but the plane makes it to the ground without incident.

Over the past 50 to 60 years, flight-safety experts have been designing aircraft with the best technology available to withstand lightning. Since then, when planes have been struck by lightning, most have reported damage on a wingtip or tail, affecting an area no bigger than the size of a quarter.

Aluminium Skin Safeguards Planes

The secret to safe lightning hits can be attributed to the aluminum outer skin of most airplanes, a material that conducts electricity and directs the current to flow through the skin of the plane without diversion to the interior of the aircraft.

As an added safeguard, fuel tanks and other aerial electronics are designed to withstand lightning strikes, thanks to built-in static discharge and grounding precautions.

Pilots will not deliberately fly into lightning storms and do their best to avoid them, but the Federal Aviation Administration requires all planes to go through a rigorous testing process regardless.

Watch Claire Newell on Global BC News: Final (Mon.), Early (Wed.), Morning & Noon (Thur.), Noon (Sat.). Or catch her Tuesdays at 8:30 a.m. on Shore 104 FM.

Originally published in TV Week. For daily updates, subscribe to the free TV Week e-newsletter, or purchase a subscription to the weekly magazine.