Lightning is a rare but regular phenomenon for air traffic. Research and design have created aircraft that withstand average lightning strikes. Ball lightning (BL), a metastable, rare lightning type, is also observed from (and within) aircraft. Science and the media focused on individual BL incidents and did not analyze general patterns. Lacking established incident reporting channels, most BL observations are still passed on as “aviation lore”. To overcome this unsatisfactory condition, the authors collected and analyzed an international data bank of 87 BL-aircraft case histories from 1938 to 2007. 37 Russian military and civil BL reports were provided by the third author. Of the whole sample, 36 (41%) cases occurred over Russia/RF/SU, 24 (28%) over USA/Canada, 23 (26%) over Europe, and 4 (5%) over Asia/Pacific. Various types of military (US: C-54/141, B-52, KC-97/135 Stratotankers, C130, P-3 Orion, RF/SU: PO-2, IL, SU, TU, MIG; Nimrod, Saab-105) and civilian aircraft (US: DC-3/6, Metroliner, B-727/737/757/777, RF/SU: AN, TU; VC-10, Fokker F-28, CRJ-200), as well as general aviation (C-172, Falcon-20), were involved. BL reports show a flat annual April to August maximum. At BL impact, 15 aircraft were climbing, 7 descending; most were at cruising altitude. 42 (48%) reported BL outside the aircraft, 37 (43%) inside, 7 (8%) both in-and outside. No damage was reported in 34 (39%) cases, 39 objects (45%) caused minor damage, 11 major damage (13%), 3 even resulted in military aircraft losses. 3 objects caused minor, 1 major crew injury. 23 damage cases were associated with BL inside the fuselage; all 4 crew injury cases were of that BL type. Mean size is described as 25 cm, sometimes over 1 m, color 30% in the yellow-red, 10% in the blue-green spectral region, 8% white, duration around 10 seconds, sometimes over 1 minute. 33 (38%) incidents ended with an explosion of the object. Thunderstorm conditions were reported by 25 (29%) of the observers, 9 (10%) said there was no thunderstorm. Results on lightning-aircraft interaction (Rakov & Uman, 2003) are compared with BL reports (e.g. flight level - BL maxima at 1000 and 3000 m). BL is seen as an atmospheric electrical phenomenon, in some cases after an initial cloud-aircraft lightning flash, in other cases originating without a lightning flash. Because of this, aircraft BL is also of interest for BL theories. Approximately 50% occur inside the airframe, some causing minor damage, potentially threatening to crew and passengers. Structural damage highlighted by mass media is extremely rare. Although BL constitutes no major air traffic risk, the authors suggest routine BL incident/accident reporting and BL damage/injury investigation. Aircrews should be briefed about possible BL within the fuselage. After a BL occurrence, airline passengers should be informed and debriefed.
AGU Fall Meeting Abstracts
- Pub Date:
- December 2009
- 3304 ATMOSPHERIC PROCESSES / Atmospheric electricity;
- 3324 ATMOSPHERIC PROCESSES / Lightning