Fear of Flying in Bad Weather: Lightning

Welcome to the first of this series of articles discussing a fear of flying in bad weather. First up, thunderstorms – and more specifically, lightning. For my thoughts on the incident involving Flight AF447, go here.

Before I discuss aircraft flying in lightening storms, I want you to watch this 30 second video from YouTube. Click play to watch;

[yframe url=’http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=036hpBvjoQw’]

Ok, welcome back. That was a video of a Qantas aircraft being struck by lightning on it’s final approach into Sydney in 2004.

Why have I shared that video with you? Because I wanted some video proof of what I’m now going to tell you. Here goes;

The plane is designed to withstand lightning strikes.

In fact, you are in more danger while disembarking the aircraft than you are experiencing a mid-air strike. Watch the video again to see that the plane is fine. It doesn’t start to fall from the sky, it doesn’t alter course, and it doesn’t catch fire.

So, how do aircraft withstand such a violent force of nature?

Planes are designed with every single metal part wired together, to allow the electricity to pass through and exit via ‘static discharge’ wicks on the wings and the tail. You can see an example of these in the photo.

It’s very rare that an aircraft is struck by lightning. In over 3,000 flights I have never experienced it. However, some of my colleagues have and they have described it as a ‘non-event’. Basically, as a passenger you may not notice anything at all! At the most you may hear a slight noise, and see a bright flash.

Just remember, at no time are you in danger.

During the cruise, an aircraft will rarely come close to lightning storms. Ground radar, and aircraft radar can detect such storms and the pilots will take evasive action.

Kevin, you have just said lightning poses no threat – so why do we not fly through storms? That’s what you are thinking, right?!

Thunder clouds are bumpy. It’s as simple as that. All airlines will aim to give you the most comfortable ride possible. Therefore, we will fly around thunderstorms to ensure that you remain comfortable – and don’t spill your coffee. Sometimes, while flying at night you will see lightning, but just remember that the light passes through the cloud – which makes it look much closer than it is.

The most amazing sight I’ve ever seen is a lightning storm directly ahead of us whilst in the cockpit. We were somewhere over Barcelona and it was stunning. When I asked how far away it was, the answer shocked me ……. it was 180 miles (290km) away. I will never forget that view – one of my personal favourites.

The majority of lightning strikes that occur are during the early and latter stages of flight. In fact, an aircraft can sometimes cause lightning by flying close to an electrically charged cloud. The aircraft simply acts as a huge, floating, lightning conductor. Notice in the video above how the strike comes from the back of the aircraft, and continues on it’s course towards the ground.

In the event of a particularly violent storm, a pilot will choose to avoid taking off or landing as an extra safety precaution.

I hope that the video and explanation helps with your fear of flying in thunderstorms. If not, feel free to ask questions…….

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18 responses to “Fear of Flying in Bad Weather: Lightning”

  1. […] all these media stories of the aircraft coming down whilst experiencing turbulence and a possible lightening strike are unfounded – and misleading (especially to someone who is nervous about flying […]

  2. Hi Alan,

    Good question. In normal circumstances, planes at 35,000ft are above lightning and any other bad weather – but in some circumstances thunderstorm clouds can rise to this level.

    Pilots tend to manoever around these storms as they can see them on radar and will have updates from ATC regarding storm conditions.

  3. am really scared of flying, and am leavin this thursday. am very worried about my flight even though am sure nothing will happen, but its just thefear of crashing that still gets to me, or even flying in bad weather like a thubnder storm.

  4. Pilots have radar that shows them where thunderstorms are – enabling them to avoid flying through them.

    Approx 50,000 flights depart and arrive at their destination safely every single day.

    Flying is the safest mode of transportation by a mile…….

  5. hi i have such a bad fear of flying and have had it for around the past 4 years when boarding the aircraft i feel very anxious and sick and just want to get off what scares me the most is dying and not being in control and scared of the plane crashing or falling throught the sky! i’m ment to be going away next monday but just carnt find the courage to book my holiday due to the flight i really need some help??? any ideas please??

  6. I am flying this Sunday- the forecast is for scattered storms/ showers. Are pilots still able to travel around these? Also, when is the best time of day for a smooth flight?

  7. Hi
    My first flight was from the Uk to Sydney Australia in 2001 I enjoyed the outward flight but for some reason I became anxious on the return flight. Also I flew to the Caribbean in 2005 and the landing was so rough I really could have jumped out of the aircraft, if the pilot had only warned us that it was going to be maybe I would not have worried so much. I really did not know if the plane was in trouble as it was moving around so violently and juddering on approach to St Lucia airport. To cut a long story short I had a break from flying for a few years and recently returned to it and have made several flights into Europe from the UK and plan making more. My problem has become increasingly worse with every flight I take, The morning I was due to leave the hotel in Munich to catch my home flight I was throwing up for quite a while. As I have mentioned I plan on making more flights but feel worried now even though the next flight I have to make is at the end of Jan 2011! I do have a mechanical background and fully understand the principals of flight so it is not ignorance that is causing anxiety am I a lost cause?
    As my next flight is into Munich in the middle of winter I am very concerned about the low temperatures and snow and ice on the aircraft and the runway. I have also heard there can be wind shear in these conditions is this true and what affect can this have on the aircraft on take of and landing? I am starting to feel nauseous just thinking about it and writing this.
    Thank you for any advice you can give me.

    Julian Hughes


  8. Hi everyone,
    I have really bad flying anxiety so I got a similar form of xanex from the doctor so I can relax, but now there is a HUGE rain/thunder/snow storm directly over us and will last long past the time we rare due to take off. Now I’m freaking out about the wheather, I just read the articles and feel a little better and I understand pilots are used to flying in bad weather but i cant help panic that we wont be able to take off right or fly through it stably.

  9. I’m boarding a flight in 45 minutes. The weather here in Louisville is terrible, lightning and heavy rain. So far no delays, should I be concerned? I’m freaking out, honestly.

    • No, do not freak out… If there are no delays then there is no danger. I can promise you that if there was any danger then flights would be delayed.

      I have taken off and landed in thunderstorms countless times in my career, so I know firsthand that it’s ok. Remember – if there is dangerous weather, your flight will not depart…. simple as that!

  10. hi my flight is 2morrow and we are going to have scattered thunderstorms few may be severe i’m rlly worried i already i axiety of thunderstorms………but now i’m flying IN ONE! hepl!

  11. Hi, the fear of flying through lightening page is all very well, but the YouTube video automatically loads up some terrifying incidents after the video you’ve loaded ends…so I’ve now just watched some haunting events which have far greater impact than anything positive I’ve read on your website……any comments on these horrible videos? I couldn’t help but watch when the YouTube link freezes with 9 disaster video footage pieces…

  12. Hi. I’m a terribly nervous flyer and your site has been a great help to me. Thank you.

    Regarding lightning, I was on a Quanta flight in 2009 and about to land in Sydney when we were hit by lightning. Even “nervous Nelly” me would not have even known about it if the pilot didn’t tell us after the fact. Lightning strikes really are a non-event for planes.

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