08 March 2007

When lightning strikes a plane

What happens when a plane is struck by lightning, and how often does it happen?

What happens when a plane is struck by lightning, and how often does it happen?

It has been estimated that each aircraft in the US commercial fleet has, on average, been struck at least once per year.

It has also been shown that aircraft flying through a charged region of cloud can actually trigger lightning. When this occurs, the lightning will originate from the body of the plane and branch outwards in opposite directions.

Smaller private or business planes show limited records of lightning strikes. This is probably due to the lack of a rigid schedule in their flight plans.

Can lightning cause an aeroplane to crash?
1967 saw the last confirmed crash as a result of a lightning strike, which hit the plane's fuel tanks and caused a devastating explosion. The Nigerian passenger jet which crashed north of Lagos in 2005, killing all 117 people on board, might also have been struck by lightning.

A large amount of research has been done on how lightning can affect planes.

Commercial aircraft are now equipped with advanced lightning protection, and must pass a number of lightning certification tests before taking to the air.

Lightning has not caused a plane to crash since 1967.

When an aircraft is struck by lightning, what happens?
Usually passengers and crew will see a bright flash and a loud noise, followed by a short period of turbulence.

Reports have also been made of the temporary flickering of electrical equipment and lights on the aircraft, and in some cases the involuntary release of oxygen masks.

Beyond these experiences, nothing more serious has been reported.

(Warren Vonk,, updated March 2007)


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