Can lightning strike a flying airplane? — DC, Denver, CO
An object doesn’t have to be on the ground to be a target for lightning. In fact, most lightning strikes don’t reach the ground at all—they occur between different clouds. All that’s needed for a lightning strike between two objects is for them to have very different voltages, because that difference in voltages means that energy will be released when electricity flows between the objects.
If an airplane’s voltage begins to differ significantly from that of its surroundings, it’s going to have trouble. Sooner or later, it will encounter something that will exchange electric charge with it and the results may be disastrous. To avoid a lightning strike, the airplane must keep its voltage near that of its surroundings. That’s why it has static dissipaters on the tips of its wings. These sharp metal spikes use a phenomenon known as a corona discharge to spray unwanted electric charges into the air behind the plane. Any stray charges that the plane picks up by rubbing against the air or by passing through electrically charged clouds are quickly released to the air so that the plane’s voltage never differs significantly from that of its surroundings and it never sticks out as a target for lightning. While an unlucky plane may still get caught in an exchange of lightning between two other objects, the use of static dissipaters significantly reduces its chances of being hit directly.