Airplanes are designed to withstand lightning strikes and have numerous safety measures in place to minimize the impact of a lightning strike. When an airplane is struck by lightning, several things typically happen:
- Conductivity: Airplanes are made of aluminum, which is a highly conductive material. When struck by lightning, the electrical current generally travels along the exterior of the aircraft, using the conductive structure to flow safely around the cabin and passengers.
- Lightning Protection System: Aircraft are equipped with a lightning protection system that consists of metal conductive paths, such as metal skins, ribs, and antennas, which help distribute the electrical current across the structure and then safely discharge it.
- Grounding: The lightning protection system is connected to a grounding system that allows the lightning’s energy to dissipate harmlessly into the ground. The grounding system helps protect the aircraft’s vital systems, such as the fuel tanks and avionics, from electrical damage.
- Transient Effects: Although the electrical discharge from a lightning strike generally flows around the aircraft, there can be transient effects. These effects include electromagnetic interference that may cause temporary disruptions or malfunctions in electronic systems. However, aircraft systems are designed with shielding and redundancy to minimize the impact of such disturbances.
- Post-Strike Inspection: After a lightning strike, pilots will typically report the incident to air traffic control and may request a post-strike inspection upon landing. This inspection allows maintenance crews to examine the aircraft for any potential damage, even if it might not be immediately apparent.
It’s important to note that while lightning strikes are relatively common, they pose minimal risk to the structural integrity or safety of the aircraft. Modern aircraft design, rigorous safety standards, and continuous maintenance practices ensure that airplanes are well-prepared to handle lightning strikes and maintain safe operations even in such situations.