Australian low-cost carrier Jetstar was forced to ground one of its Boeing 787-8 Dreamliners after the aircraft suffered significant damage from lightning during a flight. 

The lightning strike damaged the aircraft to the point that repairs will take longer than initially thought, forcing the need to ground the aircraft. 

An enlightening encounter 

Lightning strikes damaged the Boeing 787s fuselage, leaving burn marks, blistered paint, and scores of small holes. 

The damage was first discovered after the plane had safely landed. Jetstar insists that the aircraft and its passengers and crew on board were not at risk. 

The aircraft was operating a daily service from Melbourne to Gold Coast Airport on 7 May. The flight travels northwards, west of Australia’s southwest coast,  and reports highlight that the weather in that area has been dire. 

Typically, Jetstar’s international long-haul flights (to locations in Asia such as Singapore and Tokyo) and selected Australian domestic routes are serviced by Boeing 787s Dreamliners. On domestic flights, all the seats available are economy class. 

The extent of the damage to the Dreamliner’s fuselage was filmed by a news outlet. Small holes, prevalent scorch marks, and blistered paint can be pictured on the fuselage’s underside. 

Currently, the Jetstar aircraft remains parked at Gold Coast Airport where it initially landed. A Jetstar spokesperson has said that its engineers are still examining the extent of the damage and it could take six to eight weeks for the Boeing 787 to return to service. 

How were the passengers and crew protected?

The Melbourne-based carrier continues to stress that “at no point was the safety of the aircraft compromised”. But how true is that? 

Aircraft are designed to protect against lightning. The particular addition of small rods on the wings’ trailing edges called “discharge wicks” allows for electricity from lightning to exit through. Copper foil around the wing fuel tanks was another protective feature on the Dreamliners. While they do not feature on all 787s after objections from the FAA in 2019, they are featured in all of Jetstar’s Dreamliners. 

The Dreamliners also feature fuel tank fastener insulating caps but this is not the case for more modern Dreamliners as Boeing stopped installing them in 2014. 

Such protective changes to commercial aircraft were made after lightning hit a Pan American World Airways Boeing 707 in 1963, triggering a fuel tank explosion and killing all 81 passengers and crew on board.

In Jetstar’s case, the electricity was likely too much for the discharge wicks to handle, forcing the rest of it to travel elsewhere – to the fuselage’s underside. 

Jetstar boeing 787-8
Jetstar is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Qantas. The carrier has 11 Boeing 787-8s in its fleet, the rest is comprised of Airbus aircraft. | © Axel J via Flickr

But aircraft lightning strikes are much more uncommon than you may assume, with estimates that a passenger plane is hit only once or twice a year. Even then damage is rare, let alone fatal damage. Therefore, the extent of the damage on Jetstar’s Boeing was quite uncommon. 

Also, according to the Flight Safety Foundation’s crash database, there hasn’t been any major commercial airliner crashes caused by a lightning strike anywhere across the globe since 1988. 

So, having your aircraft hit by lightning is a rare occurrence. Most modern aircraft today can handle the surge of electricity if it does occur and all individuals on board will almost always emerge unscathed. 

Jetstar happened to be unlucky, not only to have been hit but by having been hit with a powerful bolt of lightning that caused months’ worth of damage to repair. 

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