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What Happens When Lightning Strikes a Plane?

By Katrina Martinez-Carter

05.12.15

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Lightning strikes airplanes far more often thank you’d expect.
Photo by Olly/Shutterstock

Lightning strikes airplanes far more often thank you’d expect.

Aircraft are struck by lightning far more often than you think and it’s actually not as disastrous as you may imagine.

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This article originally appeared on Map Happy.

They say it’s more probable to get struck by lightning than to die in a plane crash, but most people don’t know that planes get struck by lightning all the time. All the time!

OK, not all the time, but it’s definitely more likely than dying in a plane crash. In fact, it’s estimated that lightning strikes every airplane at least once per year. (The odds of being personally struck by lightning is about 1 in 3,000 in a person’s lifetime.)

One of the most shocked reactions I ever witnessed was when an off-duty flight attendant told people that it’s actually pretty common for lightning to strike planes midflight. The first time I heard about it happening was when the Spanish World Cup soccer team was returning disgraced after failing to advance past the group stage. As if that alone wasn’t bad enough, there were the heavens telling them that they failed.

But before anyone starts to freak out about lightning striking their aircraft clear out of the air with the force of God, having lightning hit a plane is really no biggie. While there have been reports historically of lightning causing serious damage to an aircraft, it takes a lot more than an electrical bolt to bring down planes these days. The last time lightning was the cause of plane crash in the United States was way back in 1967.

Behind the science

It makes a lot of sense that airplanes would be prone to lightning strikes. They’re vessels made of metal (at least partially) hurtling through clouds, the very place where storms brew. In fact, airplanes actually can provoke or trigger lightning strikes.

Essentially, the plane acts as a conductor and connects two polar opposite regions, one positively charged and one negatively charged. The regions can be two opposing chunks of cumulus clouds or it could be a cloud and the ground. The plane is what creates and completes the needed electrical circuit for lightning to flash into existence.

If a plane lands following a lightning strike, it rarely means something is wrong; usually it’s just a precaution.

The bolt will usually make contact with parts of the plane that jut out, like the wingtip or the nose, which have a higher density of electrical fields than other parts of the aircraft because of their pointed shapes, according to the Smithsonian’s Air & Space magazine.

A senior engineer at Lightning Technologies, Inc., reports that the current would then travel through the “skin” of the plane, which is really the outer shell of the plane. It might leave burn marks at the entry and exit points, but other than that everything should be no worse for the wear.

Bracing for it

In the case that lightning strikes the plane midflight, the most likely scenario is that everyone will see a flash and hear a loud noise (duh). The lights might flicker and the crew might have to deal with some temporary technical interference but some passengers won’t even notice.

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Even if a plane lands after lightning strikes, it’s usually a precautionary measure. Professor Manu Haddad of Cardiff University’s Morgan-Botti Lightning Laboratory says it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is any danger or anything is wrong.

Some Quora users shared their experiences, including one guy whose plane endured two hits and who unapologetically said, “It is one moment in my life when I honestly thought I was going to die.” But, mostly, everyone else didn’t think it was so scary, including user Julia Dorfman who summed it up with a nice little analogy: “It’s like when someone farts on a bus. Everyone kind of knows it happened and looks around to gauge what their response should be, but the driver is pretty unfazed by it. Except a lot louder.”

Engineering success

Thankfully, the people in charge have realized aircraft are moving targets; lightning and potential strikes have been factored into plane construction for a long, long time. In fact, planes have “lightning protection engineers,” which even if that’s just one hat an engineer wears goes far to make most travelers feel safe.

These engineers take extreme caution to guarantee lightning can’t cause sparks in the plane’s fuel system (which is how the 1967 crash occurred). They also make sure all the plane’s electronic devices are “well-shielded,” according to Haddad. Further, the average lightning strike apparently discharges 30,000 amperes and planes are designed, built and tested to handle far more than that, says Haddad.

Thank God.

More from Map Happy:
Can You Bring Booze Onto a Plane?
How to Get Cheaper In-Flight Wi-Fi
How to Prep for a Road Trip Abroad

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