What happens when lightning strikes an airplane?

This morning our daughter asked me what happens when lightning strikes an airplane. She is a little afraid of storms and she was concerned about the passengers of airplanes when there are lightning strikes.

Understanding lightning better

Lightning is, at the same time, an awesome and terrifying phenomenon. It seems to affect us on a very primal level. Understanding it better helps us appreciate its awesome beauty while making sure we are safer during lightning storms. I found a great video from SciShow Kids about lightning:

National Geographic also has a great video that explains lightning:

Lightning moves pretty quickly so we don’t always see lightning in more detail. I found this terrific video on Wikipedia (your browser may not play the video if it doesn’t support .ogv formats):

So what happens when lightning strikes an airplane?

The prospect of lightning striking an airplane can be scary. I was fascinated to learn that planes are engineered to handle lightning strikes in an interesting way. Here is a video from the Smithsonian Channel:

If you are interested in reading more about how airplanes are engineered to withstand lightning strikes, also read an article on Scientific American titled “What happens when lightning strikes an airplane?”. Here is an extract from the Scientific American article that answer my daughter’s questions about passengers’ experience of a lightning strike:

Although passengers and crew may see a flash and hear a loud noise if lightning strikes their plane, nothing serious should happen because of the careful lightning protection engineered into the aircraft and its sensitive components. Initially, the lightning will attach to an extremity such as the nose or wing tip. The airplane then flies through the lightning flash, which reattaches itself to the fuselage at other locations while the airplane is in the electric “circuit” between the cloud regions of opposite polarity. The current will travel through the conductive exterior skin and structures of the aircraft and exit off some other extremity, such as the tail. Pilots occasionally report temporary flickering of lights or short-lived interference with instruments.

Thunderstorms are impressive and powerful natural phenomenon and it’s usually a good idea to keep your distance, regardless of your mode of travel. At the same time, it is good to know what even when you are suspended in the air, traveling through a storm, you are probably safe.

Featured image credit: Pixabay

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