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Aircraft and Lightning strike

Technical Report · December 2018

DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.17145.52326


1 author:

Yadav Khagendra Kumar

Hindustan University


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Aircraft and Lightning strike

A lightning strike is a brilliant electric spark discharge in the atmosphere.
Lightning occurs as a result of a build up of static charges within
a Cumulonimbus cloud, often associated with the vertical movement and
collision of ice particles (Hail), which result in a negative charge at the base of
the cloud and a positive charge at the top of the cloud. Beneath the cloud, a
"shadow" positive charge is created on the ground and, as the charge builds,
eventually a circuit is created and discharges takes place between the cloud and
the ground, or between the cloud and another cloud. An aircraft passing close to
an area of charge can initiate a discharge and this may occur some distance from
a Thunderstorm.

Every airliner is struck by lightning in flight at least once a year, on average.

Another source reports that an aircarft can be struck by lightning every 1000-
3000 flight hours in average. The frequency of lightning strikes that an aircraft
experiences is affected by several factors, including the geographic area where
the aircraft operates and how often the aircraft passes through takeoff and landing
altitudes, which is where lightning activity is most prevalent. Lightning activity
can vary greatly by geographic location. Lightning strikes occur most often
during the climb and descent phases of flight at an altitude of 5,000 to 15,000 feet
(1,524 to 4,572 meters). The probability of a lightning strike decreases
significantly above 20,000 feet (6,096 meters). Seventy percent of all lightning
strikes occur during the presence of rain. There is a strong relationship between
temperatures around 32 degrees F (0 degrees C) and lightning strikes to aircraft.
Most lightning strikes to aircraft occur at near freezing temperatures.

Lightning initially attaches to an aircraft extremity at one spot and then travels
along the skin until exiting the aircraft at one of the extremities. Typically, first
attachment is to the radome, forward fuselage, nacelle, empennage, or wing tip.
Lightning strikes to aircraft may occur without indication to the flight crew. When
an aircraft is struck by lightning and the strike is evident to the pilot, the pilot
must determine whether the flight will continue to its destination (inspection will
be required upon landing) or be diverted to an alternate airport for inspection and
possible repair.

According to SAE ARP 5414, the exterior surface of a typical large aircraft can
be divided into the so-called lightning strike zones which represent the areas
likely to experience various types of lightning currents. A detailed description
of these zones can be found below table and fig Lightning zoning diagrams for a
typical large aircraft according to SAE 5414.

Table :-Aircraft lightning zones as defined by SAE Aerospace Recommended Practices 5414.

Fig :- Lightning zoning diagrams for a typical large aircraft according to SAE 5414

Effects of lightning strikes

§ Aircraft Damage. Structural damage to aircraft from Lightning strikes is rare

and even more rarely of a nature that threatens the safety of the aircraft.
Lightning strikes to aircraft can affect structure at the entrance and exit points.
In metal structures, lightning damage usually shows as pits, burn marks, or
small circular holes.

Lightning can also damage composite aircraft structures if protection finish is

not applied, properly designed, or adequate. This damage is often in the form
of burnt paint, damaged fiber, and composite layer removal.
Aircraft components made of ferromagnetic material may become strongly
magnetized when subjected to lightning currents. Large current flowing from
the lightning strike in the aircraft structure can cause this magnetization.
While the electrical system in an aircraft is designed to be resistant to lightning
strikes, a strike of unusually high intensity can damage components such as
electrically controlled fuel valves, generators, power feeders, and electrical
distribution systems.

The most serious danger during the lightning strike is connected with hot spot
formation in components of fuel tanks. However, the actual aviation
regulations on design and protection of aircraft fuel tanks guarantee their
protection from burning out and eventual fuel ignition.

The external components most likely to be hit are: Radome, Nacelles, Wing
tips, Horizontal stabilizer tips, Elevators, Vertical fin tips, Ends of the leading-
edge flaps, Trailing edge flap track fairings, Landing gear, Water waste masts,
Air data sensors (pitot probes, static ports, angle of attack [AOA] vane, total
air temperature probe).

§ Crew Incapacitation. Momentary blindness from the lightning flash,

especially at night, is not uncommon.
§ Interference with Avionics. A lightning strike can effect avionics systems,
particularly compasses.
§ Engine Shutdown. Transient airflow disturbance associated with lightning
may cause engine shutdown on both FADEC and non-FADEC engines on
aircraft with close-spaced engine pairs.

Lightning strike protection in aircraft

Modern lightning protection systems as well as processes of control and

certification on lightning protection of aircraft, which should be performed before
the release to service of each aircraft, guarantee passenger safety.

Most of the external parts of legacy aircarft are metal structure with sufficient
thickness to be resistant to a lightning strike. This metal assembly is their basic
protection. The thickness of the metal surface is sufficient to protect the aircarft’s
internal spaces from a lightning strike. The metal skin also protects against the
entrance of electromagnetic energy into the electrical wires of the aircarft. While
the metal skin does not prevent all electromagnetic energy from entering the
electrical wiring, it can keep the energy to a satisfactory level.
Lightning strike protection on aircarfts may include:
Wire bundle shields, Ground straps, Composite structure expanded foils, wire
mesh, aluminum flame spray coating, embedded metallic wire, metallic picture
frames, diverter strips, metallic foil liners, coated glass fabric, and bonded
aluminum foil.

Lightning strike protection on Composite - Boeing and Airbus have

both increasingly embraced composite structures over the years, particularly with
their latest aircraft models. Both the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A350 feature
more than 50% of composite materials (by weight) - the largest amount ever used
on a commercial aircraft. This is mainly due to their superior properties in
comparison with previously used metallic materials, namely polymeric
composites have much better mechanical properties and simultaneously they are
much lighter than metals, they are corrosion-resistant, and they are characterized,
in general, by lower thermal expansion and better fatigue resistance. However,
besides numerous advantages of polymeric composites in application to aircraft
structural elements, they are essentially dielectric which limits their performance.
These limitations result from specific demands to exterior aircraft structures,
namely resistance to high electrical discharges and highly charged
electromagnetic fields. Such phenomena occur during lightning strikes. In order
to improve electrical conductivity of these materials various solutions of LSP
(lightning strike protection) of aircraft have been developed to-date. A wide array
of LSP solutions has been adopted for composites. According to the information
available on the Boeing and Airbus websites, the wire mesh laminated into
composite elements is a solution selected for Boeing 787, while the metallic foils
embedded into composite structural parts is selected for Airbus A350.

Avoidance. Standard advice to pilots is to remain at least 20 nautical miles

displaced from any Cumulonimbus cloud. The dangers from Turbulence, Wind
Shear, and Icing associated with Cumulonimbus clouds are far greater than the
threat of Lightning. They receive weather updates and most aircraft have on board
weather radar which shows the storms clouds.
However, the limitation of radar for avoiding lightning associated with clouds is
that radar usually only picks up rain, not the cloud itself. So, aircraft can
experience occasional encounters with hail, and with lightning, without warning.
Fortunately, new generation radars have features that detect wind shears and other
forms of precipitation.
Inspections as a result of lightning
If lightning strikes an aircarft, a lightning strike conditional inspection must be
performed to locate the lightning strike entrance and exit points. When looking
at the areas of entrance and exit, maintenance personnel should examine the
structure carefully to find all of the damage that has occurred. the conditional
inspection is necessary to identify any structural damage and system damage
prior to return to service.

The following actions are recommended prior to further flight:

• An extensive inspection of the aircraft skin for evidence of lightning strike.
Bonding strips and discharge wicks should be checked in areas where there
is evidence of a lightning strike.
• Check of flight control and lift augmentation and spoiler devices for proper
bonding. Inspect bearings for roughness and resistance to movement.
• An inspection of engine nacelles for evidence of pitting or burning. If the
damage is consistent with a lightning strike, the discharge may have
tracked through the engine bearings. In this case, some manufacturers
recommend oil filters and chip detectors be examined for contamination,
with repeated checks at specified intervals;
• Check landing gear doors. If the landing gear was extended when the
lightning strike occurred, an inspection of the gear for static discharge.
Check for residual magnetism and demagnetise where necessary;
• Functional checks of radio, radar equipment, instruments, compasses,
electrical circuits and flying controls in accordance with the
manufacturer’s approved data; and
• A bonding resistance check on radome.
• Examine all of the external lights looking for:
Broken light assemblies.
Broken or cracked lenses.
• Check the standby magnetic compass.
• Check the fuel quantity system for accuracy.

Lightning Strike Structural Repairs

Detailed information and procedures for common lightning allowable damage

limits and applicable rework or repairs can be found in the structural repair
manual (SRM) for each aircarft model. Maintenance personnel should restore the
original structural integrity, ultimate load strength, protective finish, and
materials after a lightning strike.

NOTE: Above is an outline of inspection procedures. Maintenance personnel

should consult chapter five of the aircraft maintenance manual (AMM) for the
aircarft model being inspected. Operators should refer to applicable maintenance
procedures as the authoritative source for inspection/repair instructions. If a
lightning strike has caused a system malfunction, perform a full examination of
the affected system with the use of the applicable AMM section for that system.

Yadav Khagendra K.
Aeronautical Engineer

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