It’s the kind of in-flight problem that can give fliers a jolt — and we’re not talking about turbulence. We’re talking about airplanes that get hit by lightning mid-flight. Contrary to what you might believe, it’s a common occurrence on airplanes. But exactly as you might suspect, it’s a frightening experience for passengers.
Passengers on Icelandair Flight 671 became new newest members of the “My-Plane-Got-Hit-By-Lightning” club last week. Their Boeing 757 was struck by lightning shortly after taking off from Reykjavik, Iceland.
An Icelandair Boeing 757 (similar to the one pictured) got an unexpected jolt as it took off from Iceland. (Photo: Liam McManus/Flickr)
“At some point pretty soon after we left, we got hit. It wasn’t at the halfway point,” Nathen Maxwell, a member of the band The Bunny Gang, told the Denver Post. He described the sound as “a bang and a pop,” adding, “I thought we’d probably have to go for an emergency landing or turn around, detour or something.”
The plane didn’t make an emergency landing or detour — it continued on to its destination of Denver, Colorado, where passengers got another shock: they found the lightning strike punched a hole through the nose of the plane.
Even more shocking was the fact that no one, neither the passengers nor the pilots, knew the lightning had damaged the plane — or that they’d flown more than 3,700 miles on a plane with no nose. It made for an oft-posted photo on Twitter.
(Photo: Twitter/Jeremy Moore)
An airline spokesman told the Denver Post the pilots had no reason to suspect the lightning had caused any damage as the instruments and the plane’s operations seemed normal. “After the strike there was no signal that the plane was unstable or unsuitable for flight,” said the spokesman.
The sight of a plane getting hit by lightning is always a fascinating, and scary, sight. It’s been caught on video several times. As we see in this 2012 video, lightning strikes and appears to go right through a passenger jet, which continues as if nothing’s happened:
This 2004 video catches lightning striking a Qantas jet about to land in Sydney, Australia.
And in this video, shot in 2011 and posted on The Daily Mail, an Emirates Airbus 380 is struck while landing at Heathrow.
Like the Icelandair flight, no one was hurt in those incidents and all of the flights continued on as if nothing had ever happened. Lightning strikes are so common for commercial airlines —each plane can count on one or more a year — they’re built to withstand them.
“Passengers in an airliner are protected from lightning as passengers in a car are, by being enclosed in electrically conductive material,” says former airline pilot Tom Bunn, a licensed therapist and founder of SOAR — a program that helps people get over their fear of flying. “That material has traditionally the plane’s aluminum skin. But with the carbon fiber fuselage of the [Icelandair] Boeing 787, wire mesh embedded into the material does the job.”
Even if lightning doesn’t damage the airplane, the thought of nearly a billion volts of electricity shooting through your plane mid-air is not a pleasant one. For us air passengers, a surprise upgrade to First Class is the only kind of in-flight shock we want to experience.