Lightning Striking Airplane

Q: What happens when lightning hits an airplane? (Or maybe I don’t want to know.)

Usually, a strike will not result in any catastrophic trouble. Planes are hit by lightning more frequently than you might think, but are designed with this in mind. The energy does not travel through the cabin electrocuting the passengers; it is discharged overboard, partly through discharge wicks along the trailing edges of the wings and tail. There have been rare instances where damage has occurred, commonly to the plane’s electrical systems. In 1963 lightning caused the crash of a Pan Am 707, after which various protective measures were mandated.


This Q&A is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.