Here's What Actually Happens When Lightning Hits A Plane, And We Didn't Expect This

<span class="copyright">rbkomar via Getty Images</span>
rbkomar via Getty Images

I’m not an anxious flyer, but even I have to admit that the idea of a plane I’m in being struck by lightning mid-air terrifies me.

Perhaps it shouldn’t ― after all, the National Weather Service of America says that most commercial planes “are hit by lightning an average of one or two times a year.”

But why does it happen, and is it even dangerous for the passengers and crew inside?

There’s a LOT more lightning than I realised

Most lightning strikes to planes occur at altitudes between 5,000 and 15,000 feet, Simple Flying shared. That’s because takeoff and landing is when the vehicles pass through clouds, which are electrically charged.

Edward J. Rupke, senior engineer at Lightning Technologies, Inc. told Scientific American that aeroplanes actually trigger lightning strikes as they pass through non-striking, but electrically-charged, clouds.

“Actually, aircraft often initiate the strike because their presence enhances the ambient electric fields typical for thunderstorms and facilitates electrical breakdown through air,” the US National Weather Service explains.

The strike attaches itself to an extremity like the nose or tip of the plane first. Then, the electricity moves along the outer “skin” of the aeroplane as it flies through the strike, eventually leaving the body of the plane when it leaves the polarity.

Is it dangerous?

It used to be. 1967 was the last noted commercial plane crash due to a lightning strike ― the contact caused the fuel tank to explode.

Nowadays, however, planes are made from seamless aluminium or even more advanced composite materials that conduct electricity well enough to keep them away from the sensitive parts of the plane.

Occasionally, pilots might notice flickering lights or very brief interference. “When it is suspected that a plane was hit by lightning, there is a mandatory inspection for damage, which can delay flights and be quite expensive,” The US National Weather Service revealed.

So, for that reason, pilots try to steer clear of thunderstorms.

Still, commercial flights ― which have to pass rigorous safety checks ― are unlikely to cause you any harm when struck by lightning, was was the case with an Air Canada flight heading from Vancouver to London earlier this year.