• Login
We've got good news and bad news about lightning strikes and airplanes
Posted on 07/12/2019

TransportUnited States of America

Twitter Facebook 10 shares

A mid-flight lightning strike certainly sounds terrifying. No one wants their plane to be struck by lightning but it isn't as uncommon as you would think. So, is it really that dangerous? What actually happens when your plane is struck by lightning?

The idea of a plane getting struck by lightning mid-flight conjurs up images straight from your favourite disaster movie. But while it may seem like the stuff of Hollywood, it's actually much more likely than you might think.

How likely is it?

How likely is it?
Hannu Viitanen/123RF

Here are the facts when it comes to planes and lightning strikes.

Only storm clouds called cumulonimbus clouds can produce lightning. This type of storm is easily visible and identifiable to pilots. It is therefore simple for meteorologists to detect them before planes take flight. What's more, they easily appear on the flight radar system allowing pilots to avoid them.

However, lightning has the ability to travel between 5 and 11 miles from the storm cloud. This means that a plane can still be struck by lightning, even if the pilots steer fairly clear of the clouds. And, this happens more often than you'd think!

The statistics

The statistics
Sergey Nivens/123rf

It's hard to comprehend but you've probably already been struck by lightning on a plane without even realising it.According to aeronautical engineers, on average, aircraft will be struck by lightning once every 1000 hours they are in the air, which means about twice a year. Considering this fact alongside the number of planes taking flight annually, it must mean it happens quite frequently. You can even find some impressive videos of lightning striking planes on the internet!

If the lightning bolt doesn't pose any threat to passengers, that's thanks to the plane's Faraday cage. But what, you may ask, is a Faraday cage? A Faraday cage protects its contents (in this case, passengers) from electric and electromagnetic shocks.

What's more, the lightning doesn't actually strike the object. Instead, it goes around the cage.

Most of the time lightning bolts strike the wings or nose of the plane and just continue along its body, completely harmless.

Perfectly safe

Perfectly safe
Sergey Nivens/123rf

All aircraft must be capable of withstanding a lightning strike. A plane is only authorised to fly if it has a properly functioning Faraday cage.

Even though all the systems have been cleverly designed to protect passengers from lightning-related interference, they can still cause some minor problems - notably to the inflight navigation.

Luckily, there have been no reported incidents of serious flight interference from lightning. Furthermore, most planes are also fitted with additional surge protection with some providing double or even triple measures to ensure your safety.

So, rest assured, you can now take a trip from New York to Sydney (the longest in the world) without any risk of lightning-related disaster.