What Happens When Lightning Hits An Aircraft?

Aircraft are not immune to weather phenomena like lightning. Over the last year, plenty of news has come out about aircraft that have experienced lightning strikes. Thankfully, none of those events led to major aviation incidents. However, it raises the question of what actually happens when an aircraft is struck by lightning. Simple Flying investigates.

Lightning BA Plane
What happens when lightning strikes an aircraft? Photo: Getty Images

Lightning strikes and aircraft

Boeing released a detailed explanation about what lightning strikes do to aircraft. According to the manufacturer, lightning is initiated at a leading edge of the plane, which ionizes and creates a strike opportunity. From another point on the plane, the lightning current exits to the ground.

There may be some interesting phenomena, according to Boeing. This could be a little glow on the nose or wingtips. The ionization of the surrounding air is what causes this.

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Lufthansa, Bailout, Rejection worries
Modern aircraft have lightning protection systems in place. Photo: Getty Images

Ferromagnetic parts of an aircraft can become strongly magnetized after experiencing a lightning strike. The current flowing in the airplane structure is what causes this phenomenon. In addition, there may be issues relating to the electrical system of the plane. However, electrical systems are now designed to be resistant to lightning strikes.

How are aircraft protected from lightning strikes?

Older airplanes with a metal structure are mostly made up of parts that are thick enough to be resistant to lightning strikes. Thanks to the thickness, the internal components of the aircraft are protected. This is what helps prevent electromagnetic energy from entering the electrical wiring at a dangerous level that could prove consequential.

However, with more and more composite parts being used on planes, there are additional measures that must be taken. During the aircraft design process, manufacturers test these materials to see if they have appropriate lightning protection. Regulatory agencies also review these measures.

However, on the ground, it could prove damaging for some ground workers as happened in 2017 at an airport in Florida:

What is the response to a lightning strike?

Aircraft safety is of the utmost importance. After being struck by lightning, the pilots may not have any indication of the strike. All systems may continue to operate normally. However, if alerted of a lightning strike, it is up to the crew to determine if there has been any damage that needs to be rectified.

If pilots do not catch a lightning strike in the air, it can be visible to technicians on the ground after landing. If it is determined that a lightning strike occurred, one of the primary concerns will be any damage to internal components and systems.

Technicians will need to do a proper examination of the aircraft’s system to check for any sort of anomalies. Any damage will have to be repaired, although it may put a plane out of service for a while, as happened to an Emirates A380 in Munich.

For passengers, while it may be a little shocking, accidence as a result of a lightning strike are incredibly rare. While it may delay your departure for a bit, the motto “better safe than sorry” rings true in aviation.

Pan Am
A Pan Am Boeing 707 faced a harrowing inflight incident after lightning struck the plane. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The last significant aviation incident attributed to a lightning strike was in 1967. Pan Am 214 was a Boeing 707 flying from San Juan in Puerto Rico to Philadelphia with a stop in Baltimore.

After taking off from Baltimore heading to Philadelphia, the aircraft suffered a lightning strike that ignited vapors in the fuel tank leading to an inflight explosion. Since then, aircraft manufacturers have made planes safer.

Have you ever been on a plane that experiences a lightning strike? Let us know in the comments!