What happens when your plane is struck by lightning?

Published on 22nd June 2016 at 15:22

Today’s aircraft cruise through the skies at heights of up to 40,000 feet.

Up there, the atmosphere is thinner and offers less resistance, meaning the aircraft can fly more efficiently. It also helps avoid bad weather, which tends to hover at lower levels.

That bad weather includes the usual nasties of thunder and lightning.

So while cruising at higher altitudes makes the chances of aircraft being struck by lightning  low, we know there’s a high level of curiosity about what actually happens.

We asked Qantas Chief Technical Pilot Alex Passerini how he manages stormy weather and Qantas Licenced Aircraft Maintenance Engineer Grant Michelmore tells us how aircraft are designed to deal with lightning strikes.

Some lightning quick facts

  • The majority of passenger aircraft are constructed from aluminium. This is a material which conducts electricity and allows the lightning to pass across the skin of the aircraft, with the current usually exiting the aircraft at the tail.
  •  Today’s passenger aircraft are designed to withstand and fly safely when struck by lightning.
  • Some passengers have said they’ve heard a loud bang or a flash of bright light when the aircraft they’ve been flying on was struck and in other cases, you might not even notice.
  • Back in the early days of aviation aircraft were made from wood and cloth – not the best materials for flying in stormy conditions.