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NASA - NASA Lightning Research on ABC News 20/20
December 11, 2007

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They flew in a plane that was struck by lightning more than 700 times ... on purpose.

They were part of NASA's Storm Hazards Research Program, an eight-year research effort in the 1980's that helped save lives by improving aviation lightning protection standards.

Bruce Fisher of NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., was one of the researchers who flew through hundreds of thunderstorms on board a two-seat F-106B jet. "The lightning was the fun part of the mission," says Fisher. "The difficult part was the turbulence. Thunderstorms have lots of updrafts and downdrafts. We would go up and go down plus or minus three or four thousand feet."

NASA's Bruce Fisher will appear on ABC News 20/20
Friday, December 14 at 10 p.m. ET.

Fisher recounted his adventures to ABC News 20/20 anchor Elizabeth Vargas in an interview videotaped in a New York City office that was transformed into a studio. The program was addressing travel myths … so producers looked for an expert who could answer the question whether lightning could bring down an airplane.

Having experienced more than 216 lightning strikes on board the NASA F-106, Fisher has a wealth of knowledge. "Sometimes you would see a long jagged arc," Fisher told Vargas. "Sometimes you'd see a flash or sometimes you'd see sparks flying off the long nose boom that comes out of the front of the F-106."

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In all the F-106B flew 1,496 thunderstorm penetrations and got hit by lightning 714 times. Fisher and the team learned a lot about how lightning and thunderstorms behave and how aircraft affect and are affected by them.

"Virtually all in-flight lightning strikes to aircraft, especially as you get above about 20,000 feet altitude, are triggered by the aircraft's presence … not a random intercept or a blunder, where you just unfortunately run into a naturally existing channel," commented Fisher.

The researchers also figured out where to fly to find the most lightning in a storm. "Triggered lightning strikes to aircraft are more likely to occur towards the top of the thunderstorm, particularly in the anvil," said Fisher. "Our old rule was fly high and fry."

"Fly high and fry" is not a rule that most passengers want their airline pilots to follow. Fortunately most airliners fly out of their way to avoid thunderstorms. Even so federal statistics indicate the average commercial airliner will be struck by lightning once a year, typically near the freezing level.

But because of the work done by the NASA team and its government and industry partners, technologies on aircraft, such as computerized systems and displays inside the plane and composite materials on the outside, are protected from the dangers of lightning.

"In a commercial aircraft that's certificated for all weather flight you're not going to run into a risk at all. What you get with a lightning strike - with a commercially certificated aircraft for all weather flight - is burn marks on the extremities of the aircraft," commented Fisher. "The lightning current does not get inside to the individuals or the equipment inside. The aircraft are designed to keep the lightning on the outside of the plane."

The design standards the team came up with are so effective that no U.S. airliner has crashed as a result of a lightning strike in decades.

Kathy Barnstorff
NASA Langley Research Center

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Bruce Fisher - with "BF" on his helmet - during an airborne lightning strike.
Bruce Fisher - with "BF" on his helmet - during an airborne lightning strike.
Image Credit: 
NASA
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ABC News 20/20 anchor Elizabeth Vargas interviewed NASA's Bruce Fisher in New York City.
ABC News 20/20 anchor Elizabeth Vargas interviewed NASA's Bruce Fisher in New York City.
Image Credit: 
NASA/Kathy Barnstorff
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Page Last Updated: November 22nd, 2013
Page Editor: NASA Administrator