Image and video loop show a large aircraft apparently being struck by lightning shortly after takeoff.
This amazing image of an aircraft being struck by lightning circulates via email and has also been posted on various websites, blogs and forums. A video loop that also comes with the message shows what happened before, during and after the strike.
The video is genuine and was indeed taken over an airport in Japan some years ago. The still image and video were discussed in a University of Florida scientific publication titled “The interaction of lightning with airborne vehicles”. According to the report, the image and video loop show “a commercial aircraft initiating lightning at low altitude after take off from an airport in Japan during winter”. The report notes that the lightning was probably initiated by the aircraft itself. This conclusion is validated by the video loop of the incident, which shows lightning branching downward and upwards from the aircraft. In fact, notes the article, “about 90 percent of the lightning discharges to aircraft are thought to be initiated by the aircraft themselves. The initiation apparently involves a bidirectional leader whose positive and negative parts develop from opposite sides of the aircraft.”
Although the lightning strike certainly looks spectacular, there are no reports that indicate that the aircraft sustained any serious damage in the incident. In fact, while aircraft lightning strikes are not uncommon, serious damage or crashes caused by lightning are quite rare. According to a Scientific American article about lightning strikes and aircraft, its is “estimated that on average, each airplane in the U.S. commercial fleet is struck lightly by lightning more than once each year”. However, the article notes that the last crash directly attributed to a lightning strike occurred back in 1967 when the fuel tank exploded.
Understanding of the potential effects of lightning strikes have increased substantially since then and modern commercial aircraft go through stringent lightning certification tests. After a strike, electricity from the lightning will normally travel through the conductive metal skin of the aircraft and then exit, in most cases, causing little or no damage. Short-term problems with aircraft instruments and lighting are sometimes reported.
First published: 15th November 2007
By Brett M. Christensen