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Lightning Can Strike in a Flash!

By MS. ARYN KITCHELL, STAFF WRITER

I’m not scared of flying. The first time I got on a plane, I was only stressed about being 15 years old and going through security by myself. Although I’m sure if I had ever been on a plane while it was struck by lightning, I would start having second thoughts about traveling in the air.

According to experts, a commercial airplane is struck by lightning more than once each year. Most of the time, passengers don’t even notice. In fact, engineers have developed safety features to keep the planes working and the people inside safe.

An airplane can often trigger lightning when flying through a charged cloud. When lightning strikes, it will usually attach to the nose or a wing tip. Then, as the plane continues to move through the flash, the lightning travels and can attach to the fuselage or other locations. The electric current travels through the conductive “skin” of the airplane and exits off an extremity, like the tail.

To make sure the current remains on the exterior, skins are made up of conductive material, such as aluminum, or embedded with a layer of conductive fibers and screens. The computer systems on aircraft can be susceptible to power surges from lightning strikes, so grounding and surge suppression devices protect the equipment. Engineers also take precautions to protect the fuel system from sparks, because even a tiny spark could have disastrous consequences. The skin around the fuel tanks is thick enough to withstand a burn through, and all of the pipes and fuel lines are protected against lightning. Also, fuels today produce less explosive vapors.

The largest U.S. aircraft disaster directly related to lightning happened in 1963 when a Boeing 707-121 was struck, and the lightning caused an explosion in a reserve fuel tank. The plane crashed in Maryland, and all 81 people on board died. After that, the Federal Aviation Administration developed safety features, and the last confirmed commercial airplane crash here due to lightning occurred in 1967.

Unlike in an aircraft today, lightning is never safe for those on the ground. According to a study done by the National Weather Service, between 2006 and 2017, lightning struck and killed 375 people in this country, and almost two-thirds of them were participating in outdoor leisure activities when struck.

During that period, there were 34 fishing deaths, 22 beach deaths, 19 camping deaths, and 17 boating deaths. Additionally, there were 12 soccer deaths and 10 golf deaths. Yard work was associated with 14 deaths and ranching/farming with 17 deaths. Men accounted for 80 percent of all fatalities and more than 90 percent of the deaths in the fishing, sports, and work categories. The vast majority happened in June, July, and August, with the weekend (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) having slightly more deaths than weekdays.

Sadly, many victims were either headed to safety at the time of the strike or moments away from safety—they simply did not head to safety soon enough.

According to the National Weather Service, if you can hear thunder, lightning is close enough to strike you.

If a thunderstorm is in the area, no place outside is safe, so moving to a substantial building with electricity or plumbing or to a metal-topped vehicle with the windows up are your safest actions.

While indoors, stay off computers and other electrical equipment that puts you in direct contact with electricity. You also should avoid plumbing and keep away from windows and doors. Don’t lie on concrete floors or lean against concrete walls. If you are outside, never lie flat on the ground and stay off any elevated area. Never use an isolated tree, a cliff, or a rocky overhang for shelter. Get out of and stay away from large bodies of water, and avoid any objects that can conduct electricity.

These situations are dangerous because of the different ways lightning can strike people. A direct strike, which can occur when you are in an open area, is not as common as other ways. Another type is a side flash, in which lightning hits a taller object within a foot or two of the victim and then a portion of the current jumps from the object to the victim. A side flash can happen if you take shelter under a tree.

Ground current causes most lightning deaths and injuries, which happens when lightning strikes an object and the energy travels out from the strike in the ground. This can affect a large area; anyone outside near a lightning strike can be a victim of ground current. Because metal provides a path for lightning to follow, conduction over long distances through wires or other metal surfaces causes most indoor lightning casualties. If you are in contact with anything connected to metal wires, plumbing, or metal surfaces that extend outside, you are at risk for a conduction injury.

The least common death is by streamers, which develop as the downward moving leader approaches the ground. While only one streamer makes contact with the leader, all streamers in the area discharge when the main channel does. These strikes can kill anyone outside near the main channel.

If you are in a plane when lightning strikes, you’re well protected due to the many safety features developed over the years. The conductive metal in the aircraft’s skin ensures the lightning doesn’t travel inside the plane with you. People are not equipped with safety features like a commercial airplane, and any time you are outside in a thunderstorm, you risk your safety in a big way. Survivability of a lightning strike is most directly attributed to how soon someone receives medical care, so calling 911 and starting CPR can be the difference between life and death. Most importantly, don’t take that risk, and move to shelter immediately if a storm is approaching.

LIGHTNING SAFETY INDOORS

  • No corded phones. Cellular or cordless phones are OK.
  • Don’t touch electrical equipment such as computers, TVs, or cords. Remote controls are OK.
  • Avoid plumbing. Do not wash your hands, take a shower, or wash dishes.
  • Stay away from windows and doors, and stay off porches.
  • Do not lie on concrete floors or lean against concrete walls.

LIGHTNING SAFETY OUTDOORS

  • Move inside a well-constructed building, and stay away from electrical appliances and metal surfaces.
  • If you are caught outdoors and can’t get to shelter, then crouch down low, but do not lie flat on the ground.
  • Avoid isolated trees, and stay away from the tallest trees.
  • If you are in a boat, get off the water and into a substantial structure.

PROTECT YOUR PETS: Dog houses are not safe shelters. Dogs that are chained to trees or metal runners are particularly vulnerable to lightning strikes.