Q: How often does lightning hit airplanes?
A: It does often, says Brent McRoberts of Texas A&M University. “The best government estimates are that lightning strikes commercial airplanes several times a year,” McRoberts explains. “Most pilots are told to avoid thunderstorms and to try and fly around them, but lightning still hits planes often. In the early 1980s, NASA equipped a jet and intentionally flew it into more than 1,000 thunderstorms over a period of several months. It was hit at least 700 times by lightning. A few years ago, we know that the plane carrying the president of France was hit by lightning, and the same thing occurred to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s plane that was hit by lightning in 2005 but had no major damage.”
Q: How come lightning doesn’t cause a plane to crash?
A: It sometimes does, McRoberts adds. “We know that in the 1940s and 1950s, some airplane crashes were directly linked to lightning strikes,” he adds. “Plane manufacturers have learned more and more about lightning to avoid damage. To begin with, the shells of airplanes are made of aluminum, which is a good conductor of electricity. Planes are designed so that if lightning does strike them, the bolt usually travels along the exterior of the plane and flows through the body into the open air. In 1962, a plane over Maryland was hit by lightning. The spark ignited the fuel tank, killing all 81 people, but it led to rules that planes have systems to prevent such sparks in fuel areas. Most recently, the Chinese government reported that one of its planes was hit by lightning and exploded in 2000. In the United States, it’s believed the last plane crash directly attributed to lightning occurred in 1967, almost 46 years ago.”
Weather Whys is a service of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at Texas A&M University.