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Lightning Strikes Don't Really Hurt Airplanes, Right?

by John M. White |  | 1 comment

A friend of mine from my college days works in the aviation business, and he buys and sells airline parts.  We both did a lot flying together at Michigan State University (sob - we lost to UNC) at the Winged Spartans flying club. Our careers took different paths as I went into the aviation insurance business after a stint as a chief pilot, and he went into the airline parts business after a stint selling Cessna Citation trade-ins.

Recently he sent me the two photographs you see in this post.

Click on image to enlarge  Click on image to enlarge 
Generally speaking lightning strikes are no big deal. I recall having a lightning strike on the radome of a DC-3 I was flying, and watched a blue ball shoot down the center aisle of the airplane exiting at the vertical stabilizer. Upon examination we finally found the exit point which was pinhole sized.  The radome, however, suffered a lot more damage, along with the radar antenna.

An article on how an airplane is protected from lightning strikes says "Since the outer skin of most airplanes is primarily aluminum, which is a very good conductor of electricity; the secret to safe lightning hits is to allow the current to flow through the skin from the point of impact to some other point without interruption or diversion to the interior of the aircraft.

Estimates show that each commercial airliner averages one lighting hit per year but the last crash that was attributed to lightning was in 1967 when the fuel tank exploded, causing the plane to crash. Generally, the first contact with lightning is at an extremity...the nose or a wingtip. As the plane continues to fly through the areas of opposite charges, the lightning transits through the aircraft skin and exits through another extremity point, frequently the tail (as shown by Gauss's Law)."

The lightning strike to this ASA regional jet for Delta Airlines certainly had a different experience than we are all used to.  Moral of the post - flying can be dangerous - never forget!

Until next time keep your wings straight and level Hersch!


"When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return."


Comments (1)

  • Ed Owen on June 24, 2019

    In all my years of flying (38+, 20,000+ hours) I’ve taken only two lightning strikes that I know of. The first one was in clear air between two towering build-ups, about ten miles from each. It hit the radome and burned a little hole no bigger than a pencil, and went off the tail taking a chunk about the size of your fist. There was no other damage to the aircraft (that was enough) but that machine continued to have electrical problems for years afterward.
    The second hit occurred while maneuvering between some tiny cells on final approach. That one struck right at the left cockpit window about two feet from my head. My ears rang for a week. The damage here, though less dramatic, was more severe. It caused a string of little pin-head sized holes all down the left side of the aircraft (A320).
    So, as you point out, lightning doesn’t normally cause damage to the extent of bringing down the aircraft, but it is not something to be trifled with. UrCaptainSpekin

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