A British Airways plane on a recent flight to India was hit by lightning shortly after take-off – but continued on its nine-hour journey despite reports that it had sustained “more than 40 small holes” in the incident.
The non-stop service BA-35 had just left Heathrow on July 22, headed for the Indian city of Chennai, when it was struck.
Early reports stated that, once inspected on the tarmac in what is the capital of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the aircraft was found to have sustained “between 42 and 46 holes”.
The Boeing 787-800 Dreamliner was grounded while further tests were conducted. It was unable to complete its scheduled return leg a day later. Travellers booked to fly to London had to be transferred onto alternative services. The aircraft remained in Chennai until July 29, when it returned to the UK without passengers, and was reexamined at Heathrow.
After a thorough series of checks, it has since returned to active duty.
British Airways has confirmed that the lightning strike occurred, but says that it “does not recognise the description of the damage”, and that at no point were passengers at risk.
“The aircraft was inspected by our highly qualified engineers before returning to service.
“The safety and security of our customers and crew is always our priority.”
Lightning strikes are among air passengers’ biggest concerns – but in reality, they are rare occurrences, and are exceedingly unlikely to lead to fatalities.
The only known case of total loss of life on a commercial airliner struck by lightning is that of Pan Am Flight 214, which crashed in Maryland, in the USA, on December 8 1963.
The Boeing 707-121 was flying between Baltimore and Philadelphia, but was caught in an intense electrical storm while in a holding pattern as it attempted to land at the latter. All 81 people on board – seventy-three passengers and eight crew members – were killed.
The disaster was caused by the ignition of fumes in the plane’s near-empty fuel tank, and led to immediate modifications in aircraft design.
Twenty-first century aircraft are significantly more advanced than their 20th century predecessors, and far less susceptible to extreme weather conditions.
Modern planes – including Dreamliners and Boeing Airbus A350s – are largely constructed from lightweight carbon composite covered with a thin layer of copper. These act as “Faraday Cages”, meaning that the seated space inside is protected from electrical currents.
Strikes most commonly occur when a jet is passing through cumulonimbus (storm) clouds, at a height of 2000-5000 metres (6,500-16,500 feet) above the ground.