7 Aircraft Disasters Caused by Lightning Strikes

A Delta Air Lines flight from Milwaukee to Atlanta made an emergency landing in Chattanooga Tuesday after the airplane was struck by lightning. The plane and all 164 people on board landed safely.

While it is common for airplanes to encounter lightning strikes, modern passenger jets are designed to protect the plane and its crew and passengers from the effects. According to an article published in Scientific American in 2001, every plane in the U.S. commercial fleet is struck by lightning more than once a year. As it turns out, an airplane often causes the lightning strike as it flies through a heavily charged area of clouds. The lightning actually originates at the airplane and travels away in the opposite direction.

Most lightning strikes occur during the climbing and descending portions of a flight. A Boeing technical report in 2012 notes that 96% of strikes occur within clouds at altitudes between 5,000 and 15,000 feet.

The last commercial jet crash directly attributable to lightning occurred in 1963, when a Pan Am jet crashed near Elkton, Maryland, on a flight that originated in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and was completing its final leg from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore. The crash killed all 81 passengers and crew.

The National Lightning Safety Institute has recorded six other plane crashes directly attributable to lightning. Here’s a list of all seven (including the Elkton crash) listed in date order, along with the airline and flight number, location, the type of plane involved, the point at which the incident occurred and the number of fatalities.

TWA Flight 891
> Date: June 26, 1959
> Location: Milan, Italy
> Aircraft: Lockheed L-1649A Starliner
> Incident occurred: During climb
> Fatalities: Nine crew and 59 passengers

Air International Flight 2611
> Date: August 12, 1963
> Location: Lyon, France
> Aircraft: Vickers 708 Viscount
> Incident occurred: Initial approach
> Fatalities: Eight crew and 16 passengers

Pan Am Flight 214
> Date: December 8, 1963
> Location: Elkton, Maryland
> Aircraft: Boeing 707
> Incident occurred: Initial approach
> Fatalities: Eight crew and 73 passengers

LANSA Flight 508
> Date: December 24, 1971
> Location: Puerto Inca, Peru
> Aircraft: Lockheed L-188A Electra
> Incident occurred: Cruising
> Fatalities: Six crew and 85 passengers

Iran Air Force Flight 48 (military flight)
> Date: May 9, 1976
> Location: Madrid, Spain
> Aircraft: Boeing 747
> Incident occurred: Descent
> Fatalities: Ten crew and seven passengers

Kuwait Air Force (military flight)
> Date: September 5, 1980
> Location: Milan, Italy
> Aircraft: Lockheed L-100-20 Hercules
> Incident occurred: n/a
> Fatalities: Eight crew

Nürnberger Flugdienst (NFD) Flight 108
> Date: February 8, 1988
> Location: Kettwig, Germany
> Aircraft: Swearingen SA227AC Metro
> Incident occurred: Initial approach
> Fatalities: Two crew and 19 passengers

A UPS worker in Little Rock, Arkansas, was struck by lightning on Wednesday as he was loading a plane. He was knocked unconscious briefly, but has just a “baseball-sized char mark on the top of his head,” according to a report at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette website. We hope he bought a lottery ticket.

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