The 200,000mph threat to every airport in the world

Travelling at speeds more than 300 times faster than a Boeing 747 in cruise, this uncontrollable phenomenon presents a serious hazard to airline operations on the ground. Key.Aero speaks to Chris Vagasky from Vaisala to find out more… 

Mother Nature is not to be messed with. That’s something the aviation industry knows very well because it has the ability to heavily impact its activities.  

While not generally a hazard to aircraft in the air, lightning can however be a problem for airports and the operations that take place there.  

“You don’t want to have people on the tarmac fuelling aircraft with very explosive jet fuel – you also don’t want people handling baggage or bringing people on and off planes when there is lightning in the area,” explained Chris Vagasky, a meteorologist and lighting applications manager for Vaisala, a weather, industrial and environmental measurement company. 

In the United States, it’s Lightning Safety Awareness Week and Chris describes just how dangerous the phenomenon is: “Lightning is extremely hot – 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit – hotter than the surface of the sun and it packs more electricity than what’s running through the walls of your house. It’s about 10,000 times more powerful than that electricity.” 

In just the last few months, the meteorologist has observed airport lightning strikes throughout the US, Brazil and Vietnam. While aircraft are designed to sustain strikes, airports and the people who work there are less protected. 

“It actually rips up a chunk of the tarmac and that causes delays because you have to get crews out there to patch the hole and sometimes, they can be one or two feet wide and six to ten inches deep,” he recounts. 

“You definitely don’t want chunks of tarmac in the path of the planes because tyres could run it over resulting in tyre damage to the aircraft and if it’s small enough you could potentially ingest it into aircraft engines and that causes its own problems.” 

Chris says there are approximately two billion “lightning events” around the world each year and that it’s crucial for the industry to know the risk this pose: “It’s really important for aviators, airport managers and operational safety managers to be aware of the risk and threat that lightning poses to aviation operations.”