Lightning is an atmospheric discharge of electricity. A lightning strike can be very distressing to passengers and crew but damage to an aircraft in flight which is sufficient to compromise the safety of the aircraft is rare.


Lightning occurs as a result of a build up of static charges within a Cumulonimbus (Cb) 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.

Lightning strikes on aircraft commonly occur within 5,000 feet of the freezing level.

Lightning is accompanied by a brilliant flash of light and often by the smell of burning, as well as noise. A lightning strike can be very distressing to passengers (and crew!) but significant physical damage to an aircraft is rare and the safety of an aircraft in flight is not usually affected. Damage is usually confined to aerials, compasses, avionics, and the burning of small holes in the fuselage. Of greater concern is the potential for the transient airflow disturbance associated with lightning to cause engine shutdown on both Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC) and non-FADEC engines with close-spaced engine pairs.

Lightning may also occur in Volcanic Ash clouds formed in the immediate vicinity of eruptions because the vertical movement and collision between solid particles within the cloud generates static charges.

The following map shows the uneven distribution of lightning strikes across the globe. The data is from space-based sensors.

Map showing the uneven distribution of lightning strikes across the globe. Image courtesy of NASA (NSSTC Lightning Team)


  • 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. Nevertheless, there have been many incidents of lightning strikes leaving puncture holes in the radomes and tail fins of aircraft (entry and exit holes) and damage to control mechanisms and surfaces (see Further Reading).
  • 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. See separate article on Lightning Strike Risk to Engines.



  • If flying in the vicinity of cumulonimbus clouds, or lightning is seen close to the aircraft, then review manufacturer's guidelines for action to be taken in the event of a lightning strike. If the aircraft is equipped with gyro-magnetic compasses, it may be recommended that one of the compasses is selected to gyro while there is a risk of lightning.

Accident & Incident Reports Including Lightning as a Factor

Related Articles

Further Reading


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