Have you ever wondered; how often do planes get struck by lightning?
With over 7,000 aircraft in the air at any given time, what’s the chance that a plane would get hit by lightning.
When the cloud’s positive and negative charges meet, there is a discharge of electrons (electricity), which is also called lightning.
This high-voltage lightning discharge is capable of causing significant damage to any electrical equipment it comes in contact with.
Most planes are hit by lightning once or twice every year. This is common with commercial flights, as they are larger.
Can An Airplane Get Struck By Lightning?
Yes, airplanes can get struck by lightning, and it happens more frequently than you might think.
Lightning is a daily occurrence, and on average, it strikes about 100 times every second all over the world.
Lightning generally is formed during a rainstorm.
It happens when negative charges, usually at the bottom of the cloud, come into contact with positive charges on the earth or in other sections of the cloud.
How Often Does This Happen?
The most common time lightning strikes airplanes is during the climbing and descending phases of the flight, usually at an altitude of 1,524 to 4,572 meters.
As planes climb into the sky, they sometimes move some of these positive charges from the ground into the cloud.
It is then attracted to the negative charges in the sky, leading to the discharge of electrons.
And likewise, during the airplane’s descent, some of those negative charges are transported to other sections of the cloud.
In this section, they come in contact with positive charges, which give birth to a lightning strike.
Note: If a plane is hit by lightning, it has to undergo routine checks for damages before it can be used again.
Why Do Planes Get Hit By Lightning?
As described above, lightning striking an airplane is mostly triggered by the plane as it flies through the sky.
This happens as a result of static discharge caused by the airplane as it comes in contact with oppositely charged sections of the cloud.
This can be terrifying for passengers and crew members onboard the plane, as they may see flashes of white light and hear a loud noise.
Lightning strikes hitting airplanes are safe now, as no major accidents have been recorded in recent times as a result of lightning.
This is because aircraft are now designed with features that help contain and keep these large bolts of current on the exterior of the plane.
Which Part Of An Airplane Does Lightning Strike?
The body of an airplane is made using aluminum, which is a conductor of electricity.
The bodies of airplanes are designed in such a way that there isn’t any gap that can cause the current from the lightning to enter the interior of the airplane.
As lightning strikes one end of the airplane, it flows through the entire body and exits at the other end.
So lightning that strikes at the nose of an aircraft will likely exit at the tail without entering the airplane.
There are four main parts of an airplane at which lightning will most likely strike as it flies through the sky.
They include the following:
Types Of Lightning That Can Strike An Airplane
Type #1: Sheet Lightning
Lightning that mostly strikes airplanes is intracloud lightning, which involves the airplane being in a single stormcloud containing layers of opposite charges.
As the airplane moves from one end of the cloud to the other, it carries one charge to the other end with the opposite charge, which causes lightning to form.
This usually lights up the cloud with a sheet of light, which is why it is often referred to as “sheet lightning.”
It can also be intercloud or cloud-to-cloud lightning, where the airplane transfers the positive charges from one cloud to another different cloud with negative charges.
Note: This can easily be identified when the different ends of a lightning bolt are in two different clouds.
Type #2: Cloud-To-Ground Lightning
Most lightning strikes on airplanes occur in the air, but they can sometimes happen when the plane is on the ground.
This type of lightning strike is known as “cloud-to-ground lightning.”
This is when negatively charged particles known as “stepped leaders” zigzag downwards and cause streamer channels of positive charges to move upwards.
This streamer channel of positive charges is often found in large and tall objects and structures, such as buildings and airplanes.
Unlike other types of lightning strikes that might hit an airplane, cloud-to-ground lightning can be dangerous for people standing close to the airplane.
This is because as lightning hits the object (an airplane), it spreads outward in different directions, so anybody standing close to the object would be impacted.
Also, holding any part of the exterior of the plane can lead to shock through conduction. So during a storm, always stay away from packed airplanes.
Tip: Avoid standing close to airplanes when it is raining because if lightning strikes one, it might end up hitting you.
Can A Lightning Strike Cause A Plane To Crash?
Although it is rare and hasn’t happened recently, lightning can cause a plane to crash.
The effect of a lightning strike on an airplane can range from just a little flash of light to the plane crashing.
Just the thought of 30,000 amperes of electric current hitting an airplane can be very frightening, but there isn’t much to worry about.
Apart from the loud bang and brief turbulence, most airplane passengers won’t even feel the impact of the lightning strike.
Usually, no part of the airplane interior would be affected.
New safety technologies have been developed and are still being improved upon to ensure the safety of planes against lightning strikes.
Although in some cases, there might be minor damage to some parts of the airplane.
It can also leave small puncture holes in the fuselage and tail fin of the plane. And in most severe situations, it can cut shut power from the Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC).
This can temporarily shut down its engines.
Note: It can also cause one or more generators to shut off, leading to the cabin losing light.
What Determines The Severity Of Damage To Planes During Lightning?
The severity or extent of damage a lightning strike can cause to an airplane would depend on certain factors.
It could depend on the amount of energy the strike possesses, and the distance between the point of impact and the exit of the strike.
It could also rely on how long it takes for the current to exit the body of the plane. The last recorded commercial plane crash caused by a lightning strike was in 1967.
Pan Am Flight 214 was headed to Philadelphia, where one of its fuel tanks was struck by lightning.
This caused fuel vapors to ignite, which destroyed one of the aircraft wings. All 81 occupants, including 73 passengers and 8 crew members, perished.
Since then, the FAA has been continuously making new safety rules and regulations to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.
The National Transportation Board (NSTB) recorded 40 air crashes caused by lightning between 1963 and 1989.
How Often Do Planes Get Struck By Lightning?
Lightning strikes airplanes more often than you might think.
According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), lightning hits airplanes once every 1000 hours of flight time, or once per year.
The time of year when airplanes are mostly faced with the problems of lightning strikes is during the summer months. Well, this is because it is the warmest and most unstable time of the year.
Also, at higher altitudes of around 20,000 feet (6,096 meters) or above, it is less likely for an airplane to be struck by lightning.
Note: The presence of rain increases the chances that your flight might experience a lightning strike.
How Often Do Commercial Planes Get Struck By Lightning?
Commercial passenger airplanes are the most hit by lightning.
They experience lightning strikes once or twice every year, or per 1000 hours of flight time.
This is largely due to their size.
Smaller planes are struck less by lightning as they are capable of avoiding thunderclouds faster.
They can easily maneuver around them, which is not possible with commercial planes.
How Are Planes Protected Against Lightning Strikes?
Engineers and aircraft manufacturers have been working over the years to create aircraft that are safe and capable of withstanding lightning strikes.
Lightning protection measures are put in place to prevent the transfer of electromagnetic energy from damaging the airplane’s electrical equipment.
The bodies of airplanes are made with thick metals that can resist lightning strikes.
Also, conductive mesh made from carbon fibers, fiberglass, aluminum, and copper is used.
It is used to minimize damage to the body of the plane upon impact and limit the buildup of electric current on any part of the plane.
And to protect the airplanes’ avionics and flight control systems, effective surge protection devices are installed around these systems.
They protect them from current spikes and power surges caused by lightning.
In summary, lightning strikes planes about once or twice every year, or once or twice every 1000 hours of flight time.
When lightning strikes, it hits either the nose, wings, tip, or rudder and exits at the other end, leaving little to no damage along its paths.
I believe at this point we’ve done justice to the question “how often do planes get struck by lightning?”.
At this juncture, you have been provided insight into measures taken to prevent accidents from occurring as a result of lightning strikes.