One of the most striking images of this year, in every sense of the word, came in April, when an Air France A380 was dramatically struck by lightning. The incident was captured memorably by someone on board, who posted footage from the lightning strike on YouTube.
The flight in question originated at Paris Charles de Gaulle and was approaching its destination of Los Angeles when the airplane went through a thunderstorm. It was then dramatically struck by lightning. This was somewhat alarming to some of the passengers on board, but the plane sustained absolutely no damage, landing safely in Los Angeles a few moments later.
Lightning strikes on aircraft are relatively common. For example, back in January, a JetBlue flight originating in Los Angeles, and headed to New York, was forced to return to its origin airport after the flight crew reported a lightning strike.
The FAA confirmed that JetBlue Flight 324 landed without incident, although passengers on board were shaken. But, as we will discuss later in this article, FAA Communications Manager Ian Gregor confirmed that “commercial jets are designed to withstand lightning strikes.”
Further lightning strike
Another lightning incident occurred in March when a Delta Air Lines flight leaving Los Angeles International Airport on the way to Seattle was once more struck by lightning. At the time, an electrical storm was affecting several regions of California, and the plane was forced to return to Los Angeles, with again no injuries or damage.
Reports at the time indicated that customers were re-accommodated quickly, with the airline apologizing for any inconvenience. Interestingly, this was the third instance in a month that a jet leaving the airport in Los Angeles had been struck by lightning, underlining just how regularly this somewhat alarming occurrence actually takes place.
This may all seem quite worrying but, in reality, commercial aircraft are designed to absorb lightning strikes. There seem to be absolutely no contrary voices on this subject, with Prof. John Hansman, professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and director of the International Center for Air Transportation at MIT, telling Time that “standard commercial airplanes are designed to take lightning strikes”.
The safety of aircraft in lightning storms is achieved via several components. Firstly, the fuselage of an aeroplane acts like a Faraday cage – a container that the blocks electromagnetic fields. Any electrical charge runs around the outside of the vessel, meaning that the interior is completely protected from any voltage.
Modern airliners are also constructed with a higher percentage of carbon fibers, which results in reduced electrical conductivity. Metal wiring is also included within the composite material from which parts of planes are constructed, ensuring excellent electrical conductivity on the exterior of aircraft.
This means that planes may reroute due to safety precautions when a storm is observed, but the chances of any significant damage are extremely slim. Indeed, there has been no commercial plane crash caused by lightning in the United States since 1967, and technology has advanced quite considerably since then.
So while the scenes witnessed in the Air France incident may seem alarming, in reality, the passengers on board the flight are completely safe.