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Training Tip: Struck by lightning, again

Don’t worry, I’m fine.

It’s happened before, although I have stretched the definition of a lightning strike to shock you into thinking about static electricity—an aviation hazard more prevalent in winter, because of the nature of air.

Lightning strikes when the positive and negative charges of nearby objects—a cloud and the ground, or perhaps between two clouds—suddenly equalize. A similar discharge occurs if a person and an object develop opposite charges during a friction-causing event like taking off your sweater. (You may hear the accompanying “thunder” as a crackling sound; in darkness you may even see a tiny tendril of “lightning.”)

Student pilots learn that their aircraft have static wicks on the wings’ trailing edges that should be inspected for secure attachment during preflight. They exist to dissipate static electricity built up by the friction of flight, or in precipitation.

Awareness of static electricity also plays a safety role during the friction-producing process of refueling your aircraft: A grounding line is attached to the aircraft to prevent a spark from passing between the aircraft and the fuel source, possibly igniting fuel vapor.

If you ask the average person why they think the mini-lightning strikes we experience so often in winter while padding around the house or folding the laundry happen, expect an answer about winter’s “dry air.”

That’s true in part, but more to the point is what happens when that dry air—already good at preventing electrons from freely flowing—is made warmer indoors, amplifying its insulating effect. That allows an electrical charge to build up even more before it discharges, as explained in this Discovery article.

Student pilots learn that severe-to-extreme turbulence and icing are the most likely risks if you fly too close to a thunderstorm. But lightning does strike. On December 29, 2000, lightning struck a charged-up Lockheed L-1011 near the co-pilot’s position as the jet cruised in clouds at 32,000 feet.

“Just prior to the discharge event, the flight crew observed a phenomenon known as St. Elmo’s Fire, during which time loud popping noises were heard in the radios,” said the NTSB report of the event. The strike produced sparks, smoke, and the smell of burning insulations, but fortunately there were no injuries among the 300 aboard.

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