Are airplanes safe from lightning?

Dateline article| David Murphy|

by David Murphy

Airplanes are struck by lightning more than 1,000 times a year over the United States. In fact, on average, a typical commercial jet is struck once every 5,000 to 10,000 hours of flying time, according to some FAA reports. This should tell you that lightning is not generally a very big problem for aircraft, since planes do not come dropping out of the sky whenever there's a thunderstorm around.

In fact, the reason pilots and air traffic controllers try to steer planes around thunderstorms has more to do with avoiding violent winds and turbulence. However, lightning can do a degree of damage to airplanes. Lightning strokes have been known to cause small pockmarks in the metal skin of aircraft and occasionally, small holes. At least two airliners have crashed because of lightning in 1959 and 1963, respectively. But improved airplane design has all but eliminated the risk of fuel tank explosion and instrument failure that may have played a role in those disasters.

By the way, like a car, an airliner on the ground is a relatively safe place to ride out a lightning strike, as the bolt will travel through the skin of the plane and into the ground beneath it.

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