What Happens When Lightning Strikes an Airplane?

Last updated on Apr 10, 2024

Posted on Apr 10, 2024

Have you ever been on a plane and seen a flash of light followed by a loud bang? While certainly startling, a lightning strike on an airplane is actually a fairly common occurrence. Modern airplanes are built to handle these jolts with minimal fuss.

You might be surprised to learn that airplanes are actually hit by lightning quite often. On average, commercial airplanes experience a strike about once or twice a year. Thankfully, modern marvels of engineering ensure these strikes rarely pose a serious threat.

Faraday Cage: Your Shield in the Sky

Photo by Alev Takil

The key to an airplane's lightning defense lies in its construction. The aluminum fuselage of most airplanes acts as a giant Faraday cage. Named after scientist Michael Faraday, a Faraday cage is a conductive enclosure that blocks electric fields from entering the interior. In simpler terms, the electricity travels along the outer skin of the airplane, conducted by the metal, and exits another extremity like the wingtip or tail, leaving the passengers and crew safely inside unharmed.

While the Faraday cage effect plays a major role, airplanes incorporate additional lightning protection measures. These include a special mesh lining within the fuselage that further channels the current. Imagine it like a network of tiny lightning rods within the plane, all working together to safely disperse the electrical energy. Additionally, sensitive electronic systems onboard are equipped with surge protectors, similar to those used in your home to guard against power fluctuations. These surge protectors absorb the excess voltage caused by the strike, preventing damage to critical flight instruments and communication systems.

Pilots Take Precautions Too

Photo by Jan Huber

Of course, even with these robust defense mechanisms in place, avoiding lightning strikes altogether is the ultimate goal. That's why pilots use sophisticated weather radar systems to detect and navigate around thunderstorms whenever possible. They are constantly monitoring weather conditions and will make adjustments to the flight path as needed to ensure a smooth and safe ride. In rare cases, a pilot might even decide to divert the airplane to avoid a particularly severe storm.

Even though lightning strikes are generally harmless, a thorough inspection is mandatory after a strike is suspected. This meticulous process involves examining the exterior of the aircraft for any signs of damage, such as scorching or marks on the entry and exit points of the strike. Additionally, technicians will inspect internal components for any potential issues caused by the surge of electricity. While these inspections can cause slight delays, they prioritize passenger safety, a core principle in aviation.

Final Thoughts

While modern airplanes are adept at handling lightning strikes, research and development are ongoing to further enhance protection. New materials with even better conductivity are being explored to create an even more robust Faraday cage effect. Additionally, automatic lightning detection and avoidance systems are being developed to give pilots even greater control over navigating around storm cells.

So the next time you see a flash during your flight, remember, you're most likely perfectly safe inside your modern-day Faraday cage. Airplanes are built to take the shock, allowing you to relax and enjoy the smooth skies. In fact, you can thank the ingenuity of aviation engineers for turning what could be a terrifying event into a mere blip on the radar.

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