Lightning Strike in Flight

Here’s a story you don’t hear very often. It is a tale of a hard IFR flight, and a chance encounter with a thunderstorm in a twin engine Cessna 421. The results of the encounter would challenge any pilot, and in most cases, would have cost a lot more…

The plane had been chartered in the summer for a flight in Michigan, and the weather was turning quite foul. There were scattered thunderstorms all over the area, but with weather radar on board, our pilot was confident that he would be able to find his way through the mess, and on to his destination. The first leg of the flight went well, and they reached the destination with only a few deviations to avoid the building storms.

As the pilot waited for his passengers to return, the weather continued to wind itself up into an impressive storm. The winds picked up, the clouds grew and grew and, in general, the storms grew in intensity. They were the kind of storms most pilots would prefer to stay well clear of. By the time the passengers returned, night had fallen, and the storms had taken on a menacing tone.

With a weather briefing in hand, and the weather radar on, our pilot departed for his flight towards the home airport. After some initial deviations around weather, the 421 encountered rain. The pilot was looking at the radar returns, but the rain was causing problems — it was truncating the range of the radar from its normal range, down to just a few miles. Now, for those who don’t know, a 421 cooks along at better than three miles a minute. Translation: The pilot was starting to fly nearly blind — with only a few miles of radar range, he would only have a minute to identify trouble and make course changes if weather turned up.

Let’s add up the challenges in this flight:

  • Scattered convective weather;
  • Rain that was truncating the radar being used to avoid the weather;
  • IFR flight at night
  • Passengers
  • …did I mention the convective weather?

A bolt of lightning pounced from a cloud, and struck the left engine. The damage to the engine was immediate and severe. The strike welded the connecting rod to the crankshaft, which locked in place and punched a hole through the top of the engine. The electrical system took a major hit, knocking all the electronics off line, including the radios, transponder, and radar. The pilot was partially blinded by the intense white light of the lightning strike, and struggled to maintain control of the airplane. Still, using his vacuum instruments, he was able to make a controlled descent, find his way to a nearby airport, safely land the stricken Cessna 421 and unload its shaken passengers.

What he did wrong: In this case, our pilot made some errors in judgement and, clearly, was lucky to get away alive.

  • He flew at night in an area of known convective activity.
  • Dependent on radar, he flew through a rain shower that reduced the range of his radar, making evasion of storms nearly impossible.

What he did right: On the plus side, our pilot knew exactly where he was at when his plane was struck by lightning. When the plane was hit, he retained composure and orientation while transitioning to his basic flight instruments, and plotting a course to the closest airport. Despite an airplane that was electrically trashed, with an engine that was fatally crippled, he managed to execute a safe landing at the airport.

THE BOTTOM LINE: DON’T MESS WITH MOTHER NATURE. When convective activity is widespread, the only safe place to be is on the ground. Flying near these storms is asking for a lesson in mortality. Take it from countless pilots who have tried, Mother Nature doesn’t care if you’re a nice guy or a good pilot — she’ll still kick your behind. Don’t become a statistic. Know your limits, and respect the weather. Don’t suffer the fate of other pilots — learn from them!