What happens when lightning hits an airplane?

The thought of lightning striking an airplane mid-flight can be a fear-inducing thought, but is it something we need to panic about?

Lightning airplane

Aren’t the chances of a plane being hit by lightning pretty slim?

Lightning strikes on flying aircraft are more common than you’d think, with an individual airplane struck an average of once every two years. Lightning strikes are most likely to happen when an airplane passes through storm clouds at an altitude between two and five kilometres.

What happens when lightning hits an airplane?

Usually, when lightning hits an aircraft, it will hit an extremity. This will typically be a wing tip or the nose of the airplane.

The current from the lightning will then travel through the airplane’s metal shell before exiting from another point, such as the tail.

Can lightning damage an airplane?

Typically, a lightning strike will leave little or no evidence that it even struck an aircraft, but occasionally there can be light exterior damage such as a superficial entry or exit wound.

Professor Mamu Haddad, professor and director at Cardiff University’s Morgan-Botti Lightning Laboratory, explains that modern aircraft are made from lightweight carbon composite covered with a thin layer of copper – this protects passengers in the aircraft from electrical currents.

He goes on to say that an airplane’s fuel tanks in the wings are not exposed to any lightning sparks. They are protected by materials that can withstand any burning caused by lightning – up to 30,000C.

Planes are now built to absorb 250,000 amps, whereas the average strike generates 32,000 amps.

Should I be worried?

The chance is, if your flight was struck by lightning, it would be over in a ‘flash’ and you won’t notice anything. Sometimes a pilot may choose to head to an airport as a precautionary measure if the plane is struck, but more often than not it will be the passengers on the next flight that will be delayed while the aircraft undergoes post-lightning safety checks.


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