Kingsley: Lightening

21st April 2014

King, your father was due back to us today from his layover in Munich but did not make it. He is stuck in Germany along with the rest of the crew since their plane became grounded…because it was struck by lightening!

Needless to say I was really thrown by the phone call I took at midnight of the night before your dad was scheduled to fly back to us. We had been sleeping for a few hours you and I when he called. The number which appeared on the handset was an unfamiliar one, starting with +49. I took the call immediately, and lo, it was Erroll telling me that he is calling from a German colleague’s mobile, that the plane they were meant to operate back to Dubai had been struck by lightening, and that crew and passengers alike were to remain in Munich till such time that the engineers checked and cleared the plane for damage.

Erroll bids us farewell - en route to a layover

Erroll bids us farewell – en route to a layover

It is estimated that on average, each commercial airplane is struck by lightning once each year. Its a cause for alarm for us lay people, however I derive solace from the fact that the last plane crash in the U.S. directly attributed to lightning occurred in 1967, when lightning caused a catastrophic fuel tank explosion. Since then airplanes receive a rigorous set of lightning certification tests to verify the safety of their designs.

When lightning does strike, passengers and crew may see a flash and hear a loud noise but nothing serious should happen because of the careful lightning protection engineered into the aircraft and its sensitive components. Initially, the lightning will attach to an extremity such as the nose or wing tip. The airplane then flies through the lightning flash, which reattaches itself to the fuselage while the airplane is in the electric “circuit” between the cloud regions of opposite polarity. The current will travel through the conductive exterior skin and structures of the aircraft and exit off some other extremity, such as the tail. Pilots occasionally report temporary flickering of lights or short-lived interference with instruments.

Most aircraft skins consist primarily of aluminum, which conducts electricity very well. But lightning is extremely hot – up to 30,000C. The typical damage is a scorch mark where the point of contact was. By making sure that no gaps exist in this conductive path, the engineer can assure that most of the lightning current will remain on the exterior of the aircraft.

And so it was, ultimately, on that Munich-Dubai flight that kept your dad from us another 24 hours: no significant damage save for a burn mark or two on its outside. The crew dead-headed back, with the Captain and First Officer flying the plane with no passengers on board. Erroll did some work, then watched a movie, finally falling asleep in a fully reclined First Class private cabin. Home to us for breakfast.

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