What Happens When Aircraft and Plane are Struck by Lightning?

Do Aircraft Ever Get Struck by Lightning While in Flight? If So, What are the Consequences?

What Happens When a Plane is Hit By Lightning?

Lightning strikes on aircraft are more common than you might think. On average, each commercial airliner is struck by lightning about once a year or once every 1,000 flying hours. However, due to the safety measures in place, these strikes rarely result in serious consequences. The aircraft is designed to withstand these strikes, and it is not uncommon for planes to be hit by lightning, especially during thunderstorms.

What Happens When Aircraft is Struck by Lightning

When a plane or aircraft is hit by lightning usually at an extremity i.e. the nose or wingtip, the electricity and surges typically flows along the aircraft’s outer surface. The outer casing of plane is made of aluminum, a good conductor of electricity to pass through. The electric current then safely passes and exits the aircraft through another extremity, such as the wingtip or tail and continues through air to the ground. The airplane’s metal skin acts as a Faraday cage, safely conducting the electrical charge around the fuel tank, passengers and sensitive electronic equipment inside the plane.

The lightning strike typically doesn’t cause significant damage to the plane because the electricity passes over the surface without penetrating the interior. The plane’s fuel tanks are thick enough and protected from ignition, and passengers and crew are not at risk because the fuselage acts as a Faraday cage, directing the electricity around the interior of the aircraft.

Good to Know:

The Faraday cage, named after the English scientist Michael Faraday, refers to the phenomenon in which an external electrical field causes the charges within a conducting material to redistribute in such a way that they cancel the field’s effect inside the material. This results in the electrical charge being distributed around the exterior of the material, rather than penetrating its interior.

Composite planes have mesh woven into them to conduct electricity, and they also have static wicks i.e. thin wires on the trailing edges of wings that help dissipate electricity. Here is a short overview of the whole process of the scenario shown in the following fig.

  1. Lightning strikes at the initial points (wings and nose tip).
  2. Electricity flows through the aluminum body.
  3. The electric current exits at the final point (tail).
  4. The surges travel through the air to the ground. The plane and crew remain protected.

Effect of Lightning Strikes on Airplanes and Aircrafts

Although the exterior of the aircraft can sustain some damage, such as burns or small holes, these occurrences are usually minor and easily repairable. The most critical systems, such as the fuel tanks, are well protected from lightning strikes.

After a lightning strike, planes are usually inspected for any signs of damage and repaired (if needed), but in most cases, there is no lasting impact on the aircraft’s safety or performance.

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Do Planes Ever Get Struck by Lightning While in Flight?

Yes, planes can get struck by lightning while in flight, especially when flying through or near thunderstorms or turbulent weather conditions. Lightning is attracted to the metal structure of the aircraft, and the outer skin of most commercial airplanes is made of aluminum, which is a good conductor of electricity. However, as I mentioned earlier, planes are designed to safely withstand lightning strikes where electricity attracted to the entry point and exit safely through the exit point, and incidents of lightning causing injuries and significant damage to aircraft are rare.

What Happens to Passengers and Crew When a Plane is Hit by Lightning?

Passengers and crew members are generally safe when a plane is hit by lightning. The aircraft’s design and construction ensure that the electrical current flows around the cabin, minimizing the risk to those inside. In most cases, passengers may not even be aware that the plane has been struck by lightning.

Are There Any Instances of Plane Crashes Caused by Lightning Strikes?

While lightning strikes on aircraft are relatively common, they rarely result in accidents. Modern aircraft are designed and tested to withstand lightning strikes, and the risk of a crash due to lightning is extremely low. In fact, there are no recorded instances of a commercial airliner crashing as a direct result of a lightning strike in modern aviation history.

Effects of Lightning Strikes on Aircrafts

While the lightning strike may not even be noticeable, sometimes in strong thunder, a loud bang can be heard, leaving burn marks on the external casing. Usually, the plane is undamaged. However, superficial damage to the structure can occur, and there is a possibility of damage to the electrical system. While multiple protective systems provide effective backup, there are some direct and indirect effects of lightning on planes.

Direct Effects

  1. Structural damage: Lightning strikes can cause burns, pitting, or melting of the aircraft’s outer skin.
  2. Electrical system damage: Lightning strikes can damage or disrupt the aircraft’s electrical systems, including avionics and communication systems.
  3. Fuel system damage: Lightning strikes can ignite fuel vapors or damage fuel tanks, leading to potential leaks.
  4. Tire damage: Lightning strikes can damage tires, leading to blowouts or other issues.

Indirect Effects

  1. System disruption: Even if no direct damage occurs, lightning strikes can disrupt the aircraft’s systems, leading to temporary malfunctions or failures.
  2. Flight control issues: Lightning strikes can interfere with the aircraft’s flight control systems, leading to difficulties in controlling the aircraft.
  3. Psychological effects: Lightning strikes can cause fear or anxiety among passengers and crew, affecting their ability to function effectively.
  4. Operational impact: Lightning strikes can lead to delays or cancellations as the aircraft undergoes inspection and possible repairs.

What Safety Measures are in Place to Protect Aircraft from Lightning Strikes?

Aircraft are equipped with a variety of safety features to protect them from lightning strikes. These include:

  1. Lightning rods and static wicks: These devices help to dissipate the electrical charge from lightning strikes, reducing the risk of damage to the aircraft.
  2. Conductive skin: The outer skin of the aircraft is made from aluminum, which is a good conductor of electricity. This helps to ensure that the electrical current from a lightning strike flows around the outside of the aircraft, rather than through the interior where passengers and sensitive electronic equipment are located.
  3. Lightning protection systems: Aircraft are also equipped with lightning protection systems, which are designed to redirect the electrical current from a lightning strike away from critical components of the aircraft.

While lightning strikes on aircraft are relatively common, they rarely result in serious consequences due to the safety measures in place. Passengers and crew members are generally safe, and the risk of a plane crash due to a lightning strike is extremely low.

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