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  • Writer's pictureAfrica Union Aviation

Understanding Turbulence and Lightning Strikes

Flying through the storm
Photo credit Getty Images

Soaring through the clouds offers breathtaking views, but for many, flying can be nerve-wracking. Concerns about turbulence and lightning strikes are common. Let us explore these to understand which is more likely to disrupt your smooth ride.

Turbulence is caused by disruptions in airflow around the aircraft. Rising warm air creates bumps, while fast-moving air currents at high altitudes (jet streams) or rapid changes in wind speed or direction (wind shear) can cause the plane to pitch or roll. While unpleasant, modern aircraft are built with strong wings and flexible bodies designed to handle these bumps safely. Pilots are also trained to navigate turbulence effectively, minimizing passenger discomfort.

Lightning strikes on airplanes, surprisingly, are uncommon. Commercial aircraft act like giant Faraday cages, conducting electricity around the exterior and protecting passengers and crew. The strike usually hits an extremity, like the wingtip, and exits on another point, leaving the plane unharmed. Modern aircraft are meticulously designed to withstand strikes, with critical systems and wiring grounded or shielded to minimise internal damage. However, a powerful strike can disrupt electronics or instruments. In such cases, pilots are trained to handle the situation and may divert to a nearby airport for inspection.

Statistically, turbulence is far more common than a lightning strike. You are actually much more likely to be struck by lightning on the ground during a thunderstorm than flying on an aircraft.

Safety in air travel extends beyond the aircraft. Meteorological data helps pilots navigate around thunderstorms, and airports utilise advanced radar systems to track storm activity. Airlines, air traffic control, and weather experts work together to ensure the safest skies possible.

Both turbulence and lightning strikes can be unsettling, but modern aviation technology prioritises safety. Understanding these phenomena can alleviate anxieties and allow you to relax and enjoy the journey. So, the next time you encounter a bump or a flash, remember that skilled professionals and sophisticated technology are working behind the scenes to ensure a smooth and safe flight.

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