Clouds, Lightnings and whatever is Between them

Clouds can be beautiful, but may also be scary

For us, the pilots, clouds are part of the environment, and we have to know what they are bringing and what to be careful about.

Clouds are just water vapor. Flying in most types of clouds is not dangerous to the plane, but there are some phenomena related to the clouds, that it’s useful to know. We, the pilots live it all the time.

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Most types of clouds do not affect us except storm clouds, or as they are called in professional language, cumulonimbus. In such clouds, characterized by a shape of a pillar with an “anvil” at its end, there are strong currents of air that can shake the plane. The lower part has hail, and there may be lightning. Such clouds can damage an aircraft, though not endanger a passenger plane, it is easy to see them on a radar and avoid flying into them.

By the way: flying in other clouds can be shaky as well, but as I wrote in the post about the turbulence, there is no danger.

Under these storm clouds, there are strong winds, changing in their direction. Here, too, winds affect the plane mainly in the lower parts of the flight, but an aircraft equipped with radar can avoid entering these areas.

We do not fly into a storm cloud

With the radar installed in the nose of the plane, it is almost always possible to detect and bypass such clouds, at the picture here you can see how we bypass storm clouds on the way to Amsterdam.

Bypassing storm clouds as seen from the radar display of the aircraft
Bypassing storm clouds as seen from the radar display of the aircraft

Within these clouds, there is electrical activity, which seems to us like lightning, which is the breakdown of electrical charge, mainly to the ground and partly between clouds.

This phenomenon is spectacular, yet very energy-intensive and has already caused damage.

The video below is courtesy of the friends of Captain Emmanuel Rosenzweig

It is important to remember that the main damage can occur when lightning strikes a high object that is attached to the ground and serves as a conductor of the electric current. The plane is not connected to the ground and therefore the damage caused by lightning, if at all, is relatively low and can result in damage to an antenna or some cladding.

In 1963, a Pan-American plane crash occurred. The reason for the accident, in which all the occupants of the plane were killed, was that lightning caused the fuel vapor to explode in the plane’s cargo compartment.
Due to the time that has passed since then, it is difficult to estimate the degree of certainty in these conclusions, but since then, changes have been made in the structure of the plane so that the fuselage of an aircraft conducts the lightning in the desired path, especially without resistance, thus preventing the heat from developing. More about PanAm accident is at this link.

Lightning Strike

On January 1st, 2018, shortly after the beginning of the new year, I arrived at Ben Gurion on a flight from Budapest. The experience of fireworks that painted the sky in Budapest and in all the cities and villages around the suit picture a storm in the Tel Aviv area and the surrounding area. In the approach to landing on runway 12 at Ben-Gurion International Airport (the approach that passes over Tel Aviv for direct landing), I saw that there was a significant cloud above the runway and I decided to stop the descent and approach the landing from the north.

In my forty years on the flight, I did not experience lightning strike, until this event…

Beyond the sudden light, and the noise (!) we have not experienced any phenomenon. All the plane’s systems worked as needed, and even the passengers in the cabin were not too excited.

After landing we saw some “burns” on the plane.

A lot of noise and light … but that’s it. The plane flew safely and we landed safely a few minutes later.

An explanation of the lightning phenomenon and the connection to airplanes, here:

The phenomena I mentioned are not dangerous to passenger aircraft but are very dangerous to light aircraft, which because of their low weight are more susceptible to shaking. Light aircraft are usually not equipped with a cloud radar and therefore may enter flying areas that include storm clouds.

Storm Clouds as seen from the flight deck
Storm Clouds as seen from the flight deck

On the way to Amsterdam, we left the lane to avoid flying in storm clouds

So what? Are clouds dangerous?

No! Passenger aircraft are built so that clouds do not cause an accident. When flying on passenger planes, pilots can avoid flying near clouds that cause discomfort. And you can simply relax in a chair and enjoy the flight.

When flying in an airline, clouds are not dangerous, you can just look and enjoy

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