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What Effect Does Lightning Have When It Strikes An Aircraft?

Views From The Experts

David Cook
Lightning Researcher, Argonne National Laboratory

A lightning strike on an aircraft normally does not damage the airplane, although it may leave a burn mark. The lightning energy travels through the metal skin of the aircraft and sometimes into other areas of the aircraft. In a few cases the energy has damaged electronic equipment in the aircraft, but only a few aircraft have received enough damage to cause a major problem with flying the plane. The skin of the aircraft can usually dissipate the lightning energy sufficiently to prevent problems.

Wendell Bechtold, Meteorologist
Forecaster, National Weather Service
Weather Forecast Office, St. Louis (MO)

Lightning can have varying effects on an airplane, ranging from "no" effect, to severe damage, and even in extremely rare instances, explosion is fuel tanks. Since the exterior or "skin" of most aircraft is metal, the electrical charge of the lightning bolt travels along the surface of the aircraft and exits, causing only minor damage, such as pits or burns on the skin at the points of entry or exit. Occasionally the lightning can damage other parts of an aircraft, such as the electrical or avionics systems.

Aircraft are required to remain at least 20 miles from thunderstorms, mainly to protect them from hail and turbulence, but also from lightning. But those first two components of a thunderstorm cause much more damage to aircraft than lightning does.

Larry Krengel

It is unlikely that an aircraft would be struck by lightning. On the ground it sits on rubber tire (like a car). In the air, it is not grounded. When lightning strikes an airplane, it is just a matter of bad luck - being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In other words, if it happens to be between two points between which the lightning is already going to strike the current will go through the airplane.

When it does happen, the consequences can be dire. Electrical circuits (especially the in the micro-electronics employed in the most modern systems) are damaged just as a tv or microwave oven would be. Sometimes, parts of the airplane can be blown off and holes cut in aluminum. Seldom does a lightning strike cause a crash, but the potential is there.

Related to this, aircraft can pick up a static charge by flying through charged air. When they return to the ground, they can hold the charge for a considerable time sitting on their rubber tires. A real danger exists if the charge sparks when refueling. They solves this in two ways. By electrically connecting the fuel truck and the plane before fueling and by attaching "static wicks" to the trailing edges of aircraft that allow the charge to dissipate more quickly.

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators.
Argonne National Laboratory, Division of Educational Programs, Harold Myron, Ph.D., Division Director.

FMI: http://newton.dep.anl.gov

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