Even with our feet planted firmly on the ground and a sturdy roof over our head, thunderstorms can infuse a fear in many people. Take the same storm and add an airplane to the scenario, and now even the bravest of weather watchers might find themselves trembling with nerves and wondering, “Can lightning bring down a plane?”
Given the worst-case scenario and assuming the damage was catastrophic enough, theoretically, the answer to this question is yes. Lightning could have the potential to short a circuit, cause structural damage to the outside of the plane or perhaps start a fire onboard. But should you be concerned? Absolutely not!! The likelihood that this damage will ever be severe enough to bring down a plane is extremely rare, if not impossible!
Not convinced? Here are 5 reasons to help calm your nerves!!
#1 – Lighting strikes are common! On average, every commercial airplane flying in the U.S. will be struck by lightning at least once throughout the year. Think about it! Airplanes are made of aluminum, which is a very good conductor of electricity. When flying through heavily charged clouds, airplanes may actually trigger lightning strikes. If this happens, passengers may see a bright flash or hear a loud noise. But no need to panic as nothing serious should happen. Planes are designed to minimize the effect of these strikes, allowing lightning to safely exit through an extremity of the plane, such as a nose or tail.
#2 – It has been over 40 years since the last confirmed air crash due to lightning on a U.S. commercial airplane. On August 1963, a Pan Am flight out of Washington was struck by lightning on route to Philadelphia, resulting in an explosion in the fuel tank. 73 passengers and 8 crewmembers were killed. Since then, engineers have taken extreme precautions to ensure the safety of all aircraft fuel systems. Airplanes are now designed to allow lightning to pass harmlessly through the exterior of the aircraft (i.e. fuselage) without causing damage to the interior components, such as fuel tanks, avionics, flight controls, etc. Fuel lines and fuel tanks are protected to help withstand any potential lightning burns or sparks.
#3 – NASA has gone through rigorous testing to ensure flight safety. In the 1980’s, NASA’s Storm Hazards Research Program conducted an eight-year study on the effects lightning has on planes. In this study, pilots flew a F-106B plane through 1,496 thunderstorms and were hit by lightening 714 times. The purpose of this study was to collect data on strikes that occurred near the aircraft, as well as those that hit the plane directly. As a result, researchers and engineers were able to significantly improve aviation lightning protection standards and regulations.
#4 – All North America airlines must meet strict FAA regulations, certifying that all planes are equipped with the proper protection from lightning. The structural build of all airplanes must be certified to ensure that all of the main flight components vital for safe operation are protected and up to code. If an airliner happens to be hit by lightning during flight, guidelines are then put into place to ensure that the plane is properly inspected for damage upon arrival. If necessary, all repairs will be made before the plane is permitted to take flight again.
#5 – Commercial airliners are equipped with advanced weather radar systems. Before a plane even takes flight, pilots are checking the radar to find the smoothest and safest route for their passengers. Working with air traffic control, pilots make smart decisions about where to fly. They want to ensure a comfortable flight for everyone on board, so they take the necessary precautions to avoid strong storm cells that may cause turbulence, wind shears, etc. A plane will most likely be diverted or put into a holding pattern before flying into any rough weather where lightning is likely to be present. If a pilot has no choice but to fly through a storm, the safety design of a plane will help protect it from any damage that might occur if lightning were to strike.
Airliners have taken numerous precautions to ensure your safety, so there is no need to cringe the next time you see a flash in the sky. The worst you’re likely to experience when flying on a stormy day is a few bumps and/or delays. So sit back, relax and enjoy your flight!!