How often do planes really get struck by lightning?
How do planes protect passengers from lightning strikes?
Lightning always looks for the easiest path to travel. That is why, for example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warns that during a thunderstorm, you should not hang out in open areas where you are the tallest structure, or in other words the lightning’s easiest path to the ground. They also advise against hanging around objects that are the tallest structures in the vicinity, like the tallest tree in a clearing.
In the case of air travel, the plane acts as a good conductor of electricity and thus an easy path for lightning. The outer shells of most planes are made from aluminum or carbon fiber composites that allow the current from a lightning strike to travel around the outer shell of the plane without entering the inside of the cabin. Since 1963, new FAA safety regulations further require thorough testing of fuel tanks to make sure sparks cannot be triggered by lightning strikes.
In the case of air travel, the plane acts as a good conductor of electricity and thus an easy path for lightning.
This does not, however, mean an airplane is the safest place to be during a lightning strike, especially in flight. Where there are thunderstorms there is also usually turbulence which can lead to its own set of flight safety issues. And the same thing that keeps you safe in the air – the fact that the plane is an excellent conductor of electricity - could lead to problems on the ground. Airports will often halt all activity during lightning storms so that passengers aren’t caught standing on metal stairs or air traffic controllers aren’t hooked into metal portions of planes with headsets when lightning strikes.
The number of incidents of lightning striking planes are sure to rise with the increase of extreme weather patterns due to climate change so relying on our weather tracking systems and heeding aviation warnings will be important. For lightning to thrive, instabilities in the air as well as moisture are required, conditions that are most easily met in the summer in the US and over the state of Florida.
But if you want to be sure to stay out of lightning’s reach, as you’ve probably heard since you were a kid, “when thunder roars, go indoors!”
Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Everyday Einstein on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.