October 6, 2011

Unpacked: Lightning Strikes

Image courtesy of 10154402 on Flickr

Welcome to our new column, Unpacked, where we demystify some of the most provocative topics on the minds of fliers. We’ll unpack a new topic of interest to travelers and lovers of aviation on the first Thursday of each month.

The first edition brings us to one electrifying topic: lightning strikes. You hear about planes getting hit by lightning and maybe you’ve even been on an airplane that was struck. We’re here to explain more about what happens when there’s lightning in our plane’s path and how aircraft and crews are equipped to handle it.

If you’re not already familiar with the science behind these not-so-friendly-but-often-pretty bolts of energy, lightning is simply the discharge of static electricity. We see lightning most frequently during moderate to severe thunderstorms, when horizontal and vertical winds carry droplets of water that get larger the higher up they’re carried. Friction is created as a result of those water drops moving in different directions and colliding with one another and that static has to find somewhere to go. The trapped energy tries to find the path of least resistance to discharge, and with few contenders at 35,000 feet that sometimes ends up being planes.

There are different kinds of lightning – cloud to ground lightning as well as cloud to cloud lightning. It’s the cloud to cloud lightning that more frequently catches a plane in its path. Planes can often avoid potential lightning and the other not-so-fun effects of thunderstorms, which take place in the troposphere (the layer of the atmosphere where weather happens), but some storms are so large that even planes can’t fly above them. Towering thunderstorms can reach as high as 50 or 60,000 feet and can spread out over a large mileage area.

That said, planes are built with thunderstorms and lightning strikes in mind. Our aircraft are certified with equipment built to withstand weather. Planes are in the business of flying in the air after all, and lightning has been happening since way before the Wright Brothers. Our planes, much like tall buildings and other structures, are designed to diffuse lightning and to discharge it without taking a significant beating to its structural integrity.

Aircraft are bonded so that lightning moves along a deliberately-created path along the exterior of the body and exits through the tail or the wingtip. In addition, our planes (like many newer planes built today) are built from composite material and are not purely metal, which makes it a less desirable conductor for lightning. Interwoven mesh or screen-like material inside the plane also helps discharged static to dissipate or further break down the force of the electrical energy that enters the plane, weakening it. Static discharge wicks help direct the energy to exit via chosen points, keeping the lightning far away from harming our important customers and crewmembers. Sometimes you can look out the window and see a ball of energy seemingly dancing on the wings, a phenomenon known as St. Elmo’s Fire (not to be confused with the 1980′s crowd-pleaser starring Emilio Estevez).

The best defense against lightning in general are our weather radar systems. We utilize technology created by MIT and used by the FAA to monitor weather systems in real time, letting us know where we can expect thunderstorms with lightning up to two hours out. Our pilots work closely with Air Traffic Control as well as our Dispatch team to route their trip to avoid any potential icky weather wherever possible. They also have tools on board that help guide them, including a radar antenna in the nose of the plane that can be used to read thunderstorms 20-30 miles out and are in constant communication with en-route centers that are monitoring the weather patterns over their air space.

Lightning strikes are no dull matter but neither are they something to really worry about too much when you’re flying; it’s much like watching a lightning storm from inside a car or your home.

Feel free to leave your thoughts and questions in the below comments section and stay tuned for our next edition of Unpacked coming soon!

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27 Comments on “Unpacked: Lightning Strikes”

  • Posted by Edwin Garcia on October 6, 2011 at 10:30 am

    JetBlue always has a way of amazing me. Thank you guys for always caring and sharing your knowledge in matters such as these. I have often pondered on this topic and to my avail you have answered the very questions I had in reference to this topic. Comes to show just how much JetBlue cares for it’s passengers and crew. Looking forward to a turbulence topic in the near future.

    Yours truly,

    Edwin Garcia
    shamr02@msn.com
    A Loyal customer at heart…

  • Posted by Rob on October 6, 2011 at 10:31 am

    How many strikes do you see per year on your planes? What if any damage do these strikes cause? Finally how about doing an article on turbulence? This is a more mis understood phenomenon that scares allot of us flying.

    Thanks
    Rob

  • Posted by sheila bertsch on October 6, 2011 at 10:40 am

    I am your fear of flying passenger and just want you to know that I try to fly ONLY jet blue. I am back and forth to N.C. all the time and a big fear is storms and turbulance that is the set off bell in my head. I guess this story makes me feel a little safer.

  • Posted by Michelle M. Manning on October 6, 2011 at 10:40 am

    Hi!
    That was very informative, and humorous, at the same time. Kudos.
    I love flying JetBlue. I particularly like that your headphones aren’t a hassle and aren’t expensive. You put your money in and take them. It’s the honor system. People seem to have forgotten that lately.\
    Thank you,
    Michelle M. Manning

  • Posted by Lisa Arens on October 6, 2011 at 10:46 am

    Thanks for the very informative article. I think I’m going to like “Unpacking” with Jet Blue. Keep ‘em coming, JB!! And thanks…….. LA

  • Posted by Mindy Caplan on October 6, 2011 at 11:10 am

    Yes please do a story on Turbulance…this is so scary when it gets bad

  • Posted by JetBlue on October 6, 2011 at 11:13 am

    Great minds think alike! We’re already working on our next edition, Unpacked: Turbulence. Be sure to stop by the first Thursday of next month to learn more (and every day in between for your reading pleasure)!

  • Posted by jackie Loucks on October 6, 2011 at 11:37 am

    Thats good to know ,but very nervous about turbulance when flyng also .Love Jet Blue

  • Posted by Cooper on October 6, 2011 at 11:53 am

    Turbulence is more understood when you think about air like and aerospace or aerodynamics engineer thinks about air. It is, in many ways, fluid-like. In other words, turbulence comes and goes just like rocky sea states come and go.

    The most common tubulence is associated with cloud formations, especially cumulonimbus clouds (i.e. thunderstorms). Huge updrafts and downdrafts in air as it cools and heats can cause the most violent types of turbulence. But Thunderstorms are easily seen on radar so, although flights can get wedged sometimes between military airspace and where ATC can allow us to go, T-storms are generally easily handled as far as turbulence.

    If you’re in clear air and go through an abrupt bump that is over and done in a second, you probably just went through another aircraft’s wake. Unlike some movies might insinuate, jetwash does not put you in a flat spin out to sea. It’s just a bad bump and fairly common especially in the approach corridors at busy airports with aircraft flying through the nearly the exact same airspace all of the time.

    Other clear air turbulence can occur at any time. The most common time I see it is when crossing the shoreline (yes, even at high altitude). Riding along the coast down the Carolinas is probably the most typical.

    Some of the most surprising turbulence is in IMC (i.e. in the clouds) with only light rain around. If coming up to an area with clouds it’s a bit easier to notice. Big billowing cummulous clouds growing in front of your eyes are obviously an issue. Sometimes the tops of clouds look flat at a distance and will probably just give some light chop at worst, but then as you get closer you see wispy strands kicking up vertically, and then that might cause something slightly worse.

    Of course, sometimes there is no explanation. We’ll just be riding along in clear air and start getting a rough ride. Mother Nature rules when she wants to and that’s why it’s important to have your seatbelt on if you’re in your seat even with the seatbelt sign off … despite how we like to view ourselves, pilots are not gods and we can’t always predict the ride ahead.

    Usually the best way to get out of turbulence isn’t to change routing but change altitudes, although it doesn’t always work. Especially in the summer with all of that convective heating, sometimes it’s just bumpy from 24000ft up to 42000 feet … and if you fly any lower than 24000 feet then you probably have to stop somewhere for gas. (Jets burn gas based on an air-fuel ratio … so the thicker the air the more gas they burn. That’s why they like to travel as high as the aerodynamics of the plane’s wings allow them.)

    The most common error I see for customers is when I turn on the seat belt sign, it’s still smooth 5 seconds later, so they get up thinking the Captain must be kookoo for cocoa puffs. But actually, I see weather ahead and although I’m obviously avoiding the major weather and t-storms, we’re still going to get some significant bumps … just in a hair longer than 5 seconds.

    Hope this helps a little. Just know the planes are built for a very rough ride. It’s a good thing to see the wings bouncing around (if they were rigid they would snap off) and that your pilot wants a safe landing just as much as you do.

    JetBlue A320 Captain

  • Posted by JetBlue on October 6, 2011 at 11:56 am

    Thanks so much Captain!

  • Posted by liz on October 6, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    that was really interesting- about turbulence and (lightning)
    for some reason, turbulence really bothers me these days and it can be frightening especially the bad, plane shaking ones.

  • Posted by Steve on October 6, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    I love flying JetBlue. Thanks for the article, very informative.

  • Posted by keith on October 6, 2011 at 2:28 pm

    I don’t fly often, but when I do, it is always on JB.

    The most interesting JB customer

  • Posted by Arlene on October 6, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    Love Jet Blue, and fly it as often as possible. But you need more destination and departure choices. Then I could use no line but Jet Blue.

  • Posted by Ms. NYC! on October 6, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    JetBlue is the best airline ever… this is why I’m obsessed with the brand and won’t be flying anyone else anytime soon. :) My experiences have been stellar everytime. Thanks for this great read; interesting stuff!

  • Posted by JetBlue on October 6, 2011 at 4:03 pm

    Hi Rob,

    Thanks for your great questions! We see several lightning strikes a year on average. The damage to our planes is generally minimal, though we have rigorous checks in place whereby our planes get examined whenever a lightning strike of any magnitude takes place. Turbulence is the next topic up so be sure to check back!

  • Posted by JeanCarl on October 6, 2011 at 5:58 pm

    On a couple flights I’ve been on, it’s been awesome seeing clouds light up (more often in summer?), both during the day and night. Though at night, the plane’s flashing lights bouncing off the clouds can be mistaken for lightning flashes.

    @Cooper that’s an awesome explanation. Like with lightning, an inexperienced passenger will fear the unlikely worst case scenario. Good to know turbulence in the worst case will result in airsickness on the rough ride and that the wings are suppose to be flexible. Still, I prefer a nice gentle ride where the crew can say hi instead of being strapped in their seats.

  • Posted by Dillon on October 6, 2011 at 7:04 pm

    Thanks Jet Blue for educating and being the best.

  • Posted by Bob on October 6, 2011 at 9:23 pm

    “radar antenna in the nose of the plane that can be used to read thunderstorms 20-30 miles out”

    At jet speeds that’s a couple of minutes. Doesn’t seem right at all.

    “in constant communication with en-route centers that are monitoring the weather patterns over their air space.”

    How does this work going from say Boston to San Juan? I though it was HF radios rather than “constant communication”

    Whole article screams out to be fact checked.

  • Posted by JetBlue on October 7, 2011 at 9:16 am

    Hi Bob,

    Thanks for reading and for the great questions! The radar in the nose of the plane is just one of the several devices that can be employed to monitor weather. The grounded radar systems provide the more expansive story of en-route weather. The U.S. is divided into different regions, each of which has its own center that pilots are in touch with as they travel.

  • Posted by Glenn on October 7, 2011 at 11:56 am

    Hey Bob,

    The radar has its most vivid imagery presented when about 20-30 miles out. However, we can see weather between 80-160 miles out and when traveling around 8 miles a minute that is more than enough time to make an informed decision to avoid potential hazards ahead. Also when we are utilizing HF radios (when conducting over-water operations) we are in constant communication with ATC through a different network involving handoffs to agencies since we are outside of radar coverage. Pilots rely on other aircraft reports regarding weather along a particular route. In addition, HF radio outlets (individuals we speak with when over-water since we are outside radar coverage which is limited to about 180 miles) relay the message from us to the appropriate agency or vice versa to inform us about potential weather along our route. Happy Flying!!

    E190 First Officer

  • Posted by musica on December 8, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    Hi, this is a great post! Thanks..

  • Posted by Dianne on December 8, 2011 at 7:34 pm

    Really, really like this new column. I am a white knuckle flyer but feel very comfortable on JetBlue. Thanks. I look forward to future columns.

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    Heck of a job there, it absouletly helps me out.

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