Flying & Lightning: Should You Worry?

Maybe you’ve seen reports in the news about lightning striking an airplane. Or perhaps you’re a white-knuckled flyer concerned about your plane getting struck aloft. Either way, there’s something unnerving about being thousands of feet up in the air when there’s potential for lightning.

Should you be worried about lightning while travelling on a plane?

Plane in Storm

Photo Via Flickr – Credit: PhillipC

Lightning hits airplanes more often than you might expect. It’s been estimated each aircraft, on average, gets hit by lightning about once a year! After all, a plane’s outer shell is made of aluminum — but because the plane’s exterior is designed to conduct electricity effectively and harmlessly, you may never know lightning has even hit the plane in the first place. That said, lightning strikes — and the serious weather that often accompanies them — remain a serious concern and still pose a risk to passengers and crew, and can seriously damage a plane’s electrical system.

Airports — due to their open landscape and numerous towers and antennae — are struck by lightning on a fairly regular basis. Lightning can threaten airline crews on the ground as they fuel airplanes and load passenger luggage.

Airport Lightning

Photo via Flickr – Credit: Caren Mack Photography

Earlier this month, lightning hit the control tower and injured an airport worker at Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI) in Maryland. According to reports, lightning struck just as a control tower employee was flipping a switch to a generator during a storm – sending the electricity from the generator to the switch to the employee. After the strike, airport officials temporarily closed the tower and cancelled or diverted over 100 flights to other airports following the incident.

To determine exactly where the lightning hit BWI Airport, our meteorologists turned to our Total Lightning Network, which detects both cloud-to-ground strikes (shown as yellow bolts) and in-cloud strikes (shown as magenta bolts). The network detected lots of in-cloud activity and four cloud-to-ground strikes at the airport:

Credit: WeatherBug – Earth Networks

In fact, our network detected hundreds of strikes within a ten-mile radius surrounding the airport during the storm:

Credit: WeatherBug – Earth Networks

While the lightning strike the one that hit BWI Airport may seem like a rare event, lightning strikes are fairly common occurances:

Fortunately, thanks to advances in modern aircraft construction, lightning detection and alerting, and air traffic control knowledge and technology, very serious incidents caused by lightning are becoming less common – and making air travel safer for everyone.

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