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Clouds, lightning and thunder - what are the dangers?

Clouds are an integral part of the environment, and it is important to understand them, and what to watch out for. In this article, we will expand on clouds and lightning when flying and the effect of the weather on flight safety. This information will allow you to board the flight with confidence, and if you belong to the population that suffers from a fear of flying, this data will help you in the process of overcoming your fear.

Storm clouds - are they dangerous?

Clouds are water vapor and most types of clouds are not dangerous when flying and do not affect us, except storm clouds. There are several phenomena related to clouds, such as lightning and thunder that are important to know.

Storm clouds, called in the professional language ‘cumulonimbus’ (or CB for short), are characterized by vertical development and in the form of a column with an ‘anvil’ at the end. In these clouds, there are strong air currents that can shake the plane. Under storm clouds, in the lower part, there are strong winds that change direction, and hail, and often there may also be lightning. Storm clouds can damage an airplane but not endanger a passenger plane, since it is quite easy to see them on the radar and avoid flying into them. Although flying in other types of clouds can also be jumpy, there is no danger here.

Pilots do not fly into storm clouds

Radar is installed in the nose of the plane with which storm clouds can almost always be detected and bypassed. Within the storm clouds, there is an electrical activity that manifests itself as the lightning we know. (Lightning is the breakdown of the electrical charge, mainly to the ground and partly between clouds). Interested in reading about lightning? Click here

The lightning phenomenon is spectacular and is considered one of the most mesmerizing visual phenomena of nature, but it is high in energy and often causes damage. Most damage occurs  when the lightning strikes a high object, which is connected to the ground and constitutes a resistance to the passage of the current. This object, when it causes resistance, also produces high heat (like an incandescent bulb).

In our case, the plane is not connected to the ground, so the damage from a lightning strike, if any, is relatively low and is usually damage to an antenna or non structural coverings.

Airplanes and lightning strikes

In 1963, a Boeing 707 aircraft accident by the American Pan Am airline occurred. The conclusion of the accident investigation, was that lightning caused the fuel vapor in the plane’s tank to explode. Because a lot of time has passed since the accident, it is difficult to assess the validity of this conclusion. What is important to understand is that since that accident, changes have been made to the aircraft structure so that the planes now conducts the lightning passing through them in a desired path and mainly without resistance, thus not allowing heat to develop.

After landing we saw some “burns” on the nose of the plane but that’s it.

Bottom line, the plane flew safely, and we landed safely a few minutes later.”

The phenomena that the captain mentioned here are not dangerous for passenger planes, but they are dangerous for light planes. The lower weight of these planes exposes them to shaking and, in addition, since they are not equipped with cloud radars (like passenger planes), they may enter areas that include storm clouds.

Lightning during flight - from a captain's diary

Alon Pereg, a captain with many years of experience and a veteran, host of the ‘Fly Without Fear’ program, and developer of the SimpliFly app, shares with the readers a lightning strike he experienced while flying:

“On January 1, 2018, a little after the beginning of the civil year, I flew from Budapest and arrived at the landing stage at the airport. The fireworks that colored the sky of Budapest and the surrounding cities were replaced by a picture of a storm in the Tel Aviv area and the surrounding area. On the approach to land on runway 12 in Israel (the approach that goes over Tel Aviv for a direct landing), I saw that a significant cloud was positioned above the runway and I decided to stop the descent and approach the landing from the north. While we were climbing, the plane was struck by lightning. In my forty years of flying, I have never experienced a lightning strike.

Beyond the sudden light, and the noise of the thunder that came immediately with the flash, we did not experience any phenomenon. All the plane’s systems worked as required, and even the passengers in the cabin weren’t too excited.


We rely on facts and keep fear away

Is flight anxiety a part of your life? Are you interested in flying without fear? Lean on facts! In this article, you can comfortably rely on the following facts:

  • Clouds will not cause the plane to crash – as clouds are not dangerous to planes.
  • Careful and smart planning – passenger planes were built so that clouds would not cause an accident.
  • Trust the pilots – the pilots know how to avoid flying near clouds that cause discomfort.

    Now all you have to do is relax in the chair and enjoy the flight.

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