Is Lightning to Blame with Air France Flight 447?

Yesterdays surprising disappearance of Air France Flight 447 has led to many speculations regarding the actual cause for the vanishing act.

Perhaps the most interesting speculation to me is that lightning was the culprit. It should be no surprise that airplanes get struck by lightning often. However, the last time an airplane was struck down by lightning was 42 years ago.

Miles O’Brien, a pilot and journalist, has released an article entitled ‘What Happened to Flight447?’ for Reuters. This thorough piece explains O’Brien’s belief that the plane was indeed struck by lightning.

He writes,

“It is quite likely the airplane was struck by lightning. That could have triggered a fuel fire – but that is highly unlikely. In fact, it has been 42 years since lightning alone caused an airliner crash in the US. A lot of time and effort is spent protecting airplanes from the clear and present danger.

And since Airbus builds so called fly-by-wire aircraft (meaning the controls in the cockpit are linked to the movable surfaces on the airplane by electrical wires and computers), engineers in Toulouse have gone out of their way to demonstrate their products are safe in stormy weather. There are four fully redundant electrical systems on an Airbus – and if the worst happens a manual flight control system that allows the crew to manipulate the rudder and the fine aero-surface controls called trim tabs.

Interestingly, one of the systems most vulnerable to lightning strikes is the on-board weather radar located in the nose cone. It cannot do its job if it is shielded from lightning like the rest of the airplane – and so it is more likely to go down when lightning strikes (which is of course when you need it most).

So it is possible this plane was hit by lightning, knocking out the radar. The crew was suddenly preoccupied with an electrical failure, in the dark, over the ocean and without weather radar as they hurtled toward some epic cumulus nimbus thunderheads. Most Captains prefer to be on the flight deck for take-off and landing. Was the most seasoned aviator in his bunk when all this transpired?”

Unfortunately, nothing is for certain; however, O’Brien is very convincing with his lightning theory.


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