The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimates that lightning hits each airliner or commercial aircraft in U.S. service once a year. Most lightning strikes go unnoticed by the passengers on the flight. It’s the passengers of the aircraft’s next scheduled flight that are usually impacted because an inspection of the aircraft must be performed before it can fly again.
The skin of the aircraft cabin and interior compartments as well as the airframe are designed to conduct up to 200,000 amperes of electrical current. Lightning usually strikes extremities such as the aircraft nose or wing tips and exits out of the tail or other wingtip. The design keeps the electricity/lightning away from the crew, passengers and all the electronic equipment.
Pilot’s do their very best to avoid thunderstorms but not so much for the lightning. They are more concerned about the extreme turbulence and hailstones which could break windshields and damage the aircraft.
Lightning around aircraft has caused some fatalities. The last U.S. aircraft lightning strike to cause a crash was on December 8, 1963. It was a Pan Am Boeing 707 that was struck while flying over Elkton, MD. According to investigators jet fuel vapor in a wing tank was ignited and exploded. All 73 passengers and crew died.
Today, there is more concern about lightning strikes while the aircraft is on the ground. Ground crews performing maintenance, guiding aircraft, refueling, and baggage handling are exposed to potential lightning strikes during a storm. Passengers not covered by an enclosed jet way are also at risk.
Click on this link to see a photograph of a plane taking off that was immediately struck by a flash of lightning.