When Lightning Strikes Planes: Why Passengers Don't Have to Worry

Last night, a London-bound United Airlines flight was struck by lightning shortly after take off from San Francisco International, and safely returned to the airport. No injuries were reported and the plane was being examined for damage.

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Planes Built to Safely Withstand Lightning

For the 258 passengers aboard the United Boeing 777, the only problem was inconvenience. Their flight to Europe was delayed while the plane was inspected as a precaution. And generally speaking, that’s all lightning is for air travelers: an inconvenience, if that. There are times when passengers are unaware of aircraft lightning strikes. Last year, in an interview with PBS, pilot and aviation safety consultant John Cox said, “Pilots do everything they can to avoid being struck by lightning. But is it a safety risk, a flight hazard? No, it’s not.”

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The big reason why planes are safe during lightning strikes has to do with how well modern aircraft are constructed. Commercial jets are built to withstand severe, even violent turbulence and they are built to withstand lightning strikes.

Planes are Often Hit by Lightning

Consider the following: According to the respected Flight Safety Foundation, commercial airliners are struck by lightning on average once a year. In other words, it’s highly likely all passengers have flown in planes that have been struck by lightning.

Lightning Usually Causes Little if Any Damage

Also, when there is damage from a lightning strike (and there isn’t always), the damage is usually minor. According to a recent news report, “More often than not, the plane emerges unscathed. Planes are designed to withstand a strike.”

The last time a U.S. jetliner was identified as being brought down by lightning was an incident involving a Pan Am plane nearly 50 years ago. Since then, the Federal  Aviation Administration requires devices known as lightning discharge wicks installed on all commercial jets, and there have been no incidents since that 1963 accident.

Lightning is More Common in Tropics

Something else to consider: The U.S. is not particularly prone to lightning. According to the Flight Safety Organization, about 70 percent of all lightning flashes occur in the tropics, where most thunderstorms occur. U.S. travelers heading to Europe and Asia may be further reassured to know that “lightning over land, or over water that is close to land, is 10 times more frequent than lightning over oceans.”

Pilots Avoid Thunderstorms

Pilots, not surprisingly, avoid lightning when possible by avoiding thunder storms but as Alaska Airlines Capt. Sean Cassidy told FareCompare, it’s more to lower the risk of turbulence, adding, “Depending on the nature of the thunderstorm activity, you might fly as much as 20 miles or more around a thunderstorm.”

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Published: April 13, 2012