What happens when Lightning strikes an aircraft?

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Lightning strike on Aircraft

Aircraft lightning strike
Aircraft Lighting strike: - Wikimedia

Imagine you are in flight. And suddenly weather turns stormy. A lightning bolt struck on your aircraft. What will happen? Will you aircraft blast and crash?




Lightning is just electric current with a massive amount of energy. Lightning can be 5 times hotter than the surface of the sun. Lightning contains 5 billion joules of energy. And such massive energy containing bolt of lightning struck on your aircraft. But no need to fear. Today's aircraft can survive a lightning strike. Every aircraft experiences lightning strike at least once a year. Things which you will experience is just bright light and loud noise.

Pan Am flight 214 Boeing 707
Pan Am flight 214 - Wikimedia
But on 8th December 1963, Lightning struck on Pan Am flight 214(Shown in the picture above). And this flight with 81 on board crashed near Elkton, Maryland. This crash killed all 81. Actually what happened was lightning stricken on the fuel tank of the aircraft, causing burning of the fuel and wing broken. Aircraft lost its control. So after that incident aircraft, fuel tanks are protected by thick layer so lightning cannot damage it.

(Pan Am flight 214 Crash)
Pan Am flight 214 Boeing 707 crash
Pan Am flight 214 crash - Wikimedia
There are many modifications in today's aircraft. Today aircraft are manufactured in such a way that they can survive a lightning strike. Do you know even Aircraft itself produces lightning when it travels through clouds?

Static electrical buildup due to the friction between air and surface of the aircraft. The air friction separate electrons from atoms. It is same as rubbing balloon produces a static charge. Hence, the static wicks are used which provides pointed structure where air flow leaves aircraft surface. And additional charge flows away from the aircraft into the air.

Aircraft static wicks
Aircraft Static wicks - Wikimedia
Aircraft are mostly made up of Aluminum & its alloy. Aluminum & its alloys are a good conductor of electricity. Lightning usually strikes on the extremity of aircraft such as nose & wing tips.  So when Lightning strikes on aircraft it travels through conducting a body of aircraft. And continues to air.

Modern aircraft are made up of non-conducting material Carbon Fibre. So when Lightning strikes on such material this material resist current from flowing through it. And such massive electrical energy of lightning gets converted into heat energy & material burns. Hence such material is embedded with conducting material such as Aluminum. So when Lightning strikes, it flows through this material & protects aircraft from burning. This principle is same as that of Faraday's cage.

To protect aircraft electrical circuits from lightning, Aircraft circuits are grounded. Also, surge suppression device is used for protection.

So don't worry about a lightning strike on Aircraft while traveling in stormy weather.

Check out: - How are Airbus planes named?

Source: - Boeing
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