An airplane being hit by lightning in mid-air is actually a common occurrence and rarely poses a threat to the crew and passengers. So, what happens when a plane is struck by lightning, and how do planes withstand the strikes? The answers have to do with electrical conduction.
A lightning bolt is a current of electrons that are all traveling in the same direction, and this is what causes lightning to have huge amounts of energy. A plane, however, is not harmed by all this energy because it is made of materials that are good conductors of electricity, like aluminum. The electrical current can pass through the conductors with no problems.
Path of the Current
When lightning hits a point on the plane such as the nose or the tip of one of the wings, the plane becomes an electrical conductor. (As mentioned in the previous paragraph, this is because of the materials the plane is made of.) The electrical current moves through the conductive material and leaves the plane at another point, which is often the tail. The current then continues its journey through the atmosphere.
Impact on the Plane
Pilot’s use a state-of-the-art weather curriculum and weather monitoring system to try and avoid storms, but if you are on a plane that is hit by lightning, you will hear a loud banging noise and see a bright flash. Despite the scare, everyone will be okay. The main part of the plane conducts electricity and guards against electromagnetic fields, so neither the plane nor the fuel tanks can catch fire.
The lightning bolt’s entry and exit marks will sometimes be visible on the outside, but again, those are not dangers to people on board. Lightning may affect the pilot’s dials and displays or cause lights to flicker, yet the plane will still fly. However, the pilot will usually land the plane as a cautionary measure to make sure everything is working normally. Most importantly, everyone will be fine.
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