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How Aircraft Are Protected From Lightning

The first commercial air passenger flight occurred in 1914. It was a mere 23 minute journey from St. Petersburg, Florida to the neighboring city of Tampa. Since this flight, the commercial aviation industry has taken huge leaps in terms of technology and safety, in addition to its financial boom. Today, aviation is one of the safest modes of transportation. Despite this, many people are weary of flying during inclement weather, especially a lightning storm. However, aircraft are designed to be prepared for conditions like this. In this blog, we will discuss how aircraft are prepared for a lightning strike, how they are protected, and how they prevent damage.

Lightning strikes are more common in aviation than one might think. In fact, it is estimated that each commercial aircraft in the United States is hit by lightning at least once every year. Lightning is most common near the equator, and least common over the oceans and polar areas. It is also more likely to strike in low temperatures and in the presence of rain. The majority of aircraft lightning strikes occur during climb and descent because lighting activity is more common between altitudes of 5,000 and 15,000 feet. Smaller aircraft are less vulnerable to lightning because their skin is made from aluminum and they lack computerized engine and flight controls. Aircraft go through rigorous testing and are equipped with highly advanced lightning protection, preventing serious incidents from occurring.

When lightning does strike an aircraft, it first attaches to an extremity such as the nose or wing tip. All surfaces of an aircraft are bonded together, meaning the electric current travels through the exterior skin and aircraft structures before exiting through another extremity. Despite their protections, aircraft can still be damaged by lightning strikes. After a lightning strike, the aircraft is inspected and any damage is repaired. The most common type of damage is simple scratches to the skin of the aircraft. Nevertheless, follow-up actions including inspections, testing, and clearance are vital.

Preventing lightning from causing damage to an aircraft begins at the engineering stage. Lightning engineers, also known as conductor engineers, work to make sure they are well-protected. The nose cone of the aircraft is protected by lightning diverter slips on the outer surface of the area. The nose cone contains radar and other crucial flight instruments and must be well guarded. Within the fuel system, even the slightest spark can lead to catastrophe. As such, the skin around the fuel tanks in the wings is extra thick to withstand a burn-through.

The lightning engineers must also ensure that interior equipment like wires, computers, and similar instruments are protected from outside electrical currents. As an added precaution, modern aircraft use fuels that produce less volatile vapors. All essential equipment in an aircraft must be verified by the manufacturers to ensure its lighting protections are in accordance with regulations put in place by the relevant authority of the aircraft’s country of origin, such as the Federal Aviation Administration or a similar body. Every precaution is being taken to ensure the safety of the aircraft and all its passengers, so you can fly with the peace of mind that even the nastiest weather is nothing to worry about.

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