Flying in a storm? The shocking truth about what lightning does to a plane

David Kerley, Matt Hosford and Jordyn Phelps
Power Players

Power Players

When you’re on a plane, do you ever worry about what would happen if it is struck by lightning? Will the aircraft survive?

“Power Players” traveled to Seattle to meet Boeing’s lightning guy: Rob Steinle, who along with a team of engineers, literally makes lightning – a million volts of electricity worth – and tests its effects on plane models.

“In here, we're learning where the attachment [lightning strike] is going to happen so we can beef up the materials in those areas, so we can be sure that they can sustain a major lightning attachment,” Steinle explained from inside Boeing’s lightning lab.

As shocking as it may seem, lightning doesn’t actually severely damage a plane. Jets are designed to shed the electricity -- acting like an extension cord that channels the electric current through the plane’s exterior shell without penetrating its interior. And it’s Steinle’s job to keep it that way.

“We have to make sure that the thicknesses are adequate, that the locations of those are going to work in that location, and that the protection on those surfaces is adequate,” he said.

Commercial aircraft are so well-designed to sustain the shock of a lightning strike, Steinle said, that it would be safer for your mom to be in the air than on the ground in some places during a storm.

“Perfectly safe,” Steinle said. “Safer than she'd be on a golf course during a lightning storm.”

To demonstrate, Steinle took us behind a thick steel door in the lightning lab and powered up the lab’s lightning maker – a tall stack of generators that collectively discharges 2 megavolts of electricity.

From inside the protected room, Steinle released a current on a model plane left inside the lab. It sounds like a gun firing and the manufactured bolt traveled so quickly, you might miss it if you blink. Almost instantaneously, the lightning connected to the tip of one wing and passed through the other – just as it’s designed to do.

It’s all in the material makeup of the aircraft, which is why Steinle is regularly testing new materials that are being considered and old materials used on existing planes to make sure they pass the lightning test.

For more of the interview with Steinle, and to watch him make lightning, check out this episode of “Power Players.”

ABC News’ Tom Thornton, Glenn Aust, Brandon Chase, and Bill Ruth contributed to this episode.