Lightning Can Crash an Airplane: Myth or Truth?

Scientists who study lightning's effects on aircraft share their discoveries.

ByABC News
December 13, 2007, 10:31 AM

Dec. 13, 2007 — -- In the summer of 2000, sisters Maria Ferrante and Jan Raslavsy were flying home from a family reunion when their plane was struck by lightning.

"I heard a gunshot," said Ferrante. "The whole plane just went over a foot, immediately."

Her sister described turbulence, then some light, similar to a flash.

"I just remember this very young flight attendant being terrified -- which isn't very comforting," Raslavsy said.

It might be even less of a comfort to know that, on average, each commercial airplane gets struck by lightning once a year. But could lightning actually bring down an airplane?

"We'd like to believe today that lightning cannot take down an airplane," said Andy Plumer, chief engineer at Lightning Technologies in Pittsfield, Mass. "But in the past, it has happened."

From the 1940s to the 1960s, Plumer said, "there were plane crashes, there were fuel tank explosions, there were effects on electronic systems … and that happened more frequently than we care to remember."

So, it is not a myth. Lightning can take down airplanes.

In the late 1970s, NASA launched a project to study lightning strikes on airplanes.

Bruce Fisher signed on as lead researcher and learned there is really only one way to conduct such a study: Fly directly into a thunderstorm and try to get struck by lightning.

"Better than sitting at a desk and doing computations," said Fisher. "The lightning was the fun part of the mission. ... You know, we would go up and go down, plus or minus 3,000 or 4,000 feet with the updrafts and the downdrafts and allow the aircraft to do that."

The NASA Storm Hazards project flew into nearly 1,500 thunderstorms and experienced more than 700 lightning strikes. Fisher's test plane was hit more than 200 times … but it never crashed, thanks largely to its metal frame. When lightning struck, the metal conducted the electricity along the outside.

The point of the project, of course, was not merely to seek cheap thrills.

"We tried to quantify the electromagnetic properties of lightning strikes to aircraft," said Fisher.