A Bolt of Lightning Can Be Frightening


It was a dark and stormy night back in 2012 when I set out for my first trip to Scott Air Force Base, IL, with a colleague. During our departure from the commercial airport in Wichita, KS, the captain came over the speaker system and announced that there was some weather ahead that we would be going around. There was some minor turbulence in the air at first, but the short one-hour flight to St. Louis, MO, quickly got bumpy.

My colleague was seated beside me, and as we talked about details for a meeting the next day, I suddenly saw a blinding blueish light through the windows I was facing and instantly knew that the aircraft had been struck by lightning. Being very familiar with weather threats, I well understand that a direct hit can equal death or destruction, and at that moment I thought my number was up and the plane was going down. My colleague later told me that I had a look of sheer terror on my face that she could clearly see in the cabin’s neon light. Stunned, I waited for the worst, but the aircraft did not fall from the sky. It was almost as if nothing had happened.

When the captain announced that we were making an emergency landing in Kansas City, I was certainly ready to get my feet back on the ground. Yes, I was shaken by the experience. On the ground, I called Mr. Joe Hughes, AMC Chief of Occupational Safety, who was tracking our flight. Talking a mile a minute, I told him what had just happened and remember being astonished when he informed me that planes are built to withstand a lightning strike. Of course, pilots attempt to avoid situations associated with lightning, but in such instances, a strike is not usually a catastrophic showstopper. Because I had never directly seen a bolt strike a plane, the thought had apparently never crossed my mind until that night. Knowing that aircraft could sustain the impact of a lightning bolt while defying gravity certainly escalated my appreciation level. To me, it seemed the concept could almost rival the hanging gardens in Babylon or the pyramids in Egypt as one of the great wonders of the world in architecture and engineering feats.

Although I was still reluctant about boarding another plane in Kansas City to make it to my final destination, I was more comfortable knowing my chances of miraculous survival were high if another strike were to occur.

Fortunately, I landed in the right place and had a meeting at the Air Mobility Command (AMC) Safety Office the next morning with an experienced pilot who was well-versed in the technical details that made aircraft fit for the fight with high voltage. As then-Director of Safety Col Paul Murphy gave me a quick brief, I was instantly impressed by the power of safety features that are often taken for granted in aircraft design.

What actually happens when a plane is struck by lightning? An article in Scientific American states the following:

“Although passengers and crew may see a flash and hear a loud noise if lightning strikes their plane, nothing serious should happen because of the careful lightning protection engineered into the aircraft and its sensitive components. Initially, the lightning will attach to an extremity such as the nose or wingtip. The airplane then flies through the lightning flash, which reattaches itself to the fuselage at other locations while the airplane is in the electric “circuit” between the cloud regions of opposite polarity. The current will travel through the aircraft’s conductive exterior skin and structures and exit off some other extremity, such as the tail. Pilots occasionally report temporary flickering of lights or short-lived interference with instruments.”

Today, airplanes receive a rigorous set of lightning certification tests to verify the safety of their designs.

I saw Zeus’ mighty thunderbolt by the wing in my not-so-near death experience, which means it probably did attach at the wing and exit through the tail. But when breaking down the scenario, I found myself asking more questions, like how did the electricity not completely melt the wiring? After further investigation, I discovered it is because the Federal Aviation Administration has strict regulations regarding the protection of systems from power surges and the thorough grounding of wires that are critical for flight.

Our flying fortresses are often used as mobile fuel stations in AMC, so how do sparks not cause explosions in the enormous tanks filled with combustible fluid? Scientific American also explained why: “The last confirmed commercial plane crash in the U.S. directly attributed to lightning occurred in 1967 when lightning caused a catastrophic fuel tank explosion. Since then, much has been learned about how lightning can affect airplanes. As a result, protection techniques have improved. Today, airplanes receive a rigorous set of lightning certification tests to verify the safety of their designs.”

A bolt of lightning can be very frightening while you are strapped into an aircraft’s seat at 30,000 feet. Now, I believe it was an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience from which I learned so much. Although I hope it does not happen again, I think if it does, I’ll be able just to sit back and enjoy the ride!