In December 1963, a Pan Am jetliner took off from Baltimore on a short hop to Philadelphia. Reports of high wind conditions delayed the landing and forced the pilot into a holding pattern. While circling, lightning struck the plane, causing the fuel tank to explode and ultimately killing all 81 people onboard. Lightning strikes are still a common occurrence for today’s pilots, but the Pan Am tragedy marked the last time that lightning actually brought down a U.S. commercial airplane. Today’s planes are designed to conduct electric currents harmlessly around their perimeters, and then disperse them back into the sky. The fuel tanks and fuel lines are fully encased and grounded, making a lightning-sparked disaster nearly impossible.
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- After the 1963 mid-air explosion, the Federal Aviation Administration directed airlines to install antenna-like discharge wicks (also called static dischargers) on all commercial jets.
- Airplanes can withstand far more than the 200,000 amperes of electricity typically generated by lightning. It is estimated that planes are struck once every 1,000 hours of flight time, or about once a year.
- The Pan Am accident is listed in Guinness World Records as the “Worst Lightning Strike Death Toll.”