When lightning strikes a plane, it can be a scary experience.

But the vast majority of the time, when lightning strikes a plane, very little happens and passengers may not even notice anything happened. 

Planes are built to withstand lightning via a copper coating on their exterior that safely conducts the charge off the plane.

Lightning strikes on planes may cause light fluctuations and temporary interference with onboard instruments, but little more.

In the most severe situations, lightning may cause engine failure or turn the plane’s generators off.

To date, only 7 commercial plane crashes have been attributed to lightning.

While a plane is generally not affected by lightning strikes, airlines still have strict inspection procedures to ensure they’re undamaged when planes are struck. 

What Happens If Lightning Strikes a Plane?

The passengers and crew might see a flash of lightning or hear the sound of thunder if lightning strikes the plane.

In the vast majority of instances, the plane itself would be undamaged and unaffected by the lightning.

Modern planes are designed to withstand lightning and prevent any damage from occurring.

The lightning current would travel through the plane’s conductive exterior skin and exit from the tail.

At most, pilots have reported temporary light flickering or interference with short-lived interference with navigational instruments because of lightning. 

In the most extreme situations, a lightning strike may damage the plane or cause a crash. But, nothing happens a majority of the time. 

It isn’t Dangerous for a Plane to Be Struck By Lightning

Generally, it’s not dangerous at all for a plane to be struck by lightning, but lightning can damage the plane in some instances.

The damage that lightning causes to an airplane ranges from temporary light flickering to potentially shutting down the engines.

The exact damage depends on the discharge level of the lightning, its exit location, and the lightning strike’s duration. 

The average lightning strike contains around 1 million volts or 30,000 amps. So, lightning can cause minor damage to a plane’s compasses, and avionics, or leave small holes in the tail fins or fuselage.

This minor damage won’t cause emergencies most of the time and can be easily repaired after landing. 

In the most severe case, a lightning strike could cause engine shutdown on both Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC) and non-FADEC engines.

In other rare instances, lightning may cause airplane generators to shut down, causing a loss of light in the airplane’s cabins. 

Lightning Has Caused Very Few Plane Crashes

9 recorded plane crashes have been attributed to lightning.

7 of these crashed planes were commercial airliners, and the other 2 were military planes.

Most of these crashes involved the plane flying at low altitudes while ascending or descending. 

Most of these crashes also had low fatalities, with most people onboard surviving the crashes unharmed.

The worst of these crashes was the 1971 LANSA Flight 508, with 91 of the 92 people on board dying during this crash. 

Planes Are Built to Withstand Lightning

Modern planes are built with a carbon composite that’s covered with a thin copper layer to serve as Faraday Cages.

A Faraday cage blocks electromagnetic fields by enclosing an aircraft with metal strips that conduct electricity. 

The Faraday cage ensures the aircraft cabin is unaffected by the lightning strike.

Unless there are any gaps in this conductive path, the lightning current remains only on the aircraft’s exterior. 

You Won’t Notice When a Plane is Struck By Lightning

Passengers could see a flash of lightning or the sound of thunder if lightning strikes their plane.

In the vast majority of instances, the passengers will not feel anything more because the aircraft is designed to be safe from lightning. 

Planes Get Struck By Lightning Fairly Often

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) reports that an aircraft gets struck by lightning every 1,000 flight hours, or one strike per aircraft per year.

Most of these lightning strikes happen in near-freezing temperatures at high altitudes or during turbulence, and vary by location.

60% of lightning strikes on aircraft occur between March and July, with lightning strikes being most frequent when the plane passes through clouds while ascending or descending. 

Airlines thoroughly inspect an aircraft after it’s struck by lightning to ensure it’s airworthy before its next flight.

Inspections that airlines carry out can cause delays that cost airlines over $2 billion annually.

In conclusion:

  • Most lightning strikes on planes don’t cause any damage.
  • Modern planes are designed to resist lightning strikes by being engineered with a thin copper coating that conducts electricity.
  • The conducted electricity normally exits the plane via its tail.
  • In the most severe instances, lightning strikes could cause engine failure or turn the plane’s generators off.
  • Lightning strikes on aircraft are generally rare, and only 7 planes have crashed because of lightning.
  • Airlines still have strict regulatory requirements that must be followed when one of their planes is struck by lightning.
  • Planes struck by lightning must be thoroughly inspected before their next flight. 

Helen Krasner holds a PPL(A), with 15 years experience flying fixed-wing aircraft; a PPL(H), with 13 years experience flying helicopters; and a CPL(H), Helicopter Instructor Rating, with 12 years working as a helicopter instructor.

Helen is an accomplished aviation writer with 12 years of experience, having authored several books and published numerous articles while also serving as the Editor of the BWPA (British Women Pilots Association) newsletter, with her excellent work having been recognized with her nomination of the “Aviation Journalist of the Year” award.

Helen has won the “Dawn to Dusk” International Flying Competition, along with the best all-female competitors, three times with her copilot.