Aviation weather can build up and strike before you know it
When we can, we try to stay at least 20 milesfrom the nearest cell, but as all professional pilots know, that’s not always possible. It’s important to remember that lightning can strike in clear air more than 10 miles from the storm, so be careful out there. The technology to keep airplanes and their occupants safe from lightning strikes is always evolving, but it’s still critical not to tempt fate.
The FAA estimates that commercial airline jets are struck by lightning about once every thousand hours of flying time or once a year per plane. Considering that the energy from a bolt of lightning can contain a billion volts of electricity and up to 200,000 amperes of current, it’s a miracle that these jets don’t blow up and disintegrate mid-flight. But they don’t; in fact, there haven’t been any lightning-related accidents in recent years. Most of the damage is limited to tiny puncture holes associated with the entry and exit points. Thank you, engineers!
The glass cockpits of today’s airplanes might be a cause for concern, though. The displays have to pass certification testing, but the FAA acknowledges that electrical transients can be present during particular lightning strikes. If you fly one of these fancy airplanes, you might want to practice flying an approach or two using your backup instruments, just in case. At the very least, make sure you know how to reset your electronics in flight.
The bottom line is don’t mess with thunderstorms! Expect the unexpected and have a healthy respect for aviation weather of all kinds. Remember, your radar can only help you if you have it turned on and pay attention to what ATC and other pilots are saying.