May 12, 2011— -- It looks terrifying. Lightning strikes this Emirates Airlines A380 as it lands in London last month. Despite the jolt, the 500 people on board were all fine, no injuries or damage.
Every year in the U.S. more than a half million people are on planes that are struck by lightning. A person is actually 560 times more likely to be in a lightning strike while on an aircraft than on the ground.
It is estimated that most commercial planes are hit by lightning at least once a year and in fact planes themselves often cause the lightning strikes that hit them, when flying through storms. As a jet flies through storm clouds it disturbs the atmosphere, causing lightning to form.
In February, after a JetBlue flight was hit by lightning on approach to Boston, the pilot immediately radioed air traffic control.
"We've been struck by lightning twice," the pilot said. "There's a smell of smoke on the airplane -- no other indication at this time. We need an expedited approach as you can give us."
Former Delta Captain Kevin Hiatt experienced a lightning strike while on approach to Salt Lake City. "We were on the approach," Hiatt said, " We saw a bright light, and then you hear this very, very loud crack." Hiatt says the instruments flickered slightly – but then keep right on working. After the plane landed safety, Hiatt took a look at the fuselage, "I was really fairly surprised to see the small brown and black pockmarks all the way across the fuselage, which really meant that we did take a pretty good strike."
Hiatt, who is now Executive Vice President of the Flight Safety Foundation, said that damage was cosmetic. The plane was checked out thoroughly and found to have no mechanical problems.
If there is damage from a lightning strike, it is usually minor. More often than not, the plane emerges unscathed. Planes are designed to withstand a strike.
If a bolt of lightning hits a jet's wing, the electricity is deflected. It races along the plane's aluminum skin and eventually into the atmosphere. All the critical systems on a plane, the wiring, electronics and the fuel tank, have extra shielding to guard against possible damage.
While the collision between an airplane and nature may look spectacular, it has been nearly 50 years since a plane in the U.S. was actually brought down by lightning.