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;
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…….