NASA Lightning Strike Research

NASA Storm Hazards Research Program

F-106B 57-2516: NASA N816NA and N616NA

1979-1986: NASA studied lightning at high atmospheric levels flying this instrumented F-106 aircraft into storm clouds.  NASA collected data on strikes that occurred near the aircraft as well as those that directly hit the plane.

F-106B 57-2516 was used in NASA projects at the Langley Research Center, Hampton VA as NASA NF-106B N816NA (read more about the NASA tail number designations).    While flying as NASA N816NA it was specially modified for lightning research during a study to determine how and why lightning hits an aircraft.  The F-106B flew through 1,496 thunderstorms during more than 200 flights, being hit by lightning 714 times [Norm Crabill, NASA Storm Hazards Research Program Manager and Bruce Fisher, NASA Storm Hazards Research Program member, NASA Langley Research Center Hampton, VA] without damage to the aircraft.  N816NA holds the worlds record of lightening strikes in any one flight of 72 strikes at 37,000 ft over North Carolina in Jul 1982 crewed by NASA research pilot Bill Brown (former USN Fighter pilot) and USAF Lt. Vicki Rondo.  Phil Brown is also a Photo Engineer and was instumental in designing the camera systems used in capturing the lightening strikes.

At Langley, NASA 816 was "lightning hardened" and purposely flown into thunderstorms.  The storm hazards program learned much about the fundamental nature of in-flight lightning that will benefit designers of future aircraft.  Today's aircraft are relatively immune to the effects of lightning. But future aircraft may be more susceptible as a result of increased use of nonconductive composite materials in their structure. They also may have more lightning-sensitive electronic control and display systems.

Paint vs No paint:  Some photo's of the aircraft show it painted in a blue/white NASA scheme, while others show it in bare metal.  The lightening strikes on the aircraft actually resulted in many 'hits' as the strike danced across the aircraft during its path.  These hits left marks on the aircraft, seen in many photo's.  During the initial flights it was found that these hits would burn the aircraft skin because the paint burned momentarily, which is a bad thing when the path went across the skin of the fuel tank laidened wings.  With the paint removed and just bare metal, the lightening hits still occurred, but there was no continual burning of any kind, because there was no paint to burn.  Thus, the bare metal in "the buff" as Norm Crabill called it, was much safer.  During the middle of the test season the paint was removed only from the wings, but later towards the end of the season it was removed from the entire aircraft.  So depending on when a particular photo was taken will reflect a different paint pattern, which also helps identify when a photo was taken if the date is unknown.

Progress in Aerospace Sciences 39 (2003) 61–81: The NASA F-106B, a delta wing, single-engine jet aircraft of 21:5 m length including a sharp 3-m nose boom (a slender metal extension projecting from the plane’s nose), flew about 1500 thunderstorm traversals at altitudes ranging from 5000 to 40; 000 feet (1.5–12 km) and was struck by lightning 714 times between 1980 and 1986. Almost 10 times as many strikes were obtained for the high altitudes as for the low, the dividing altitude apparently being 6 km; although the number of high and low cloud penetration was not much different. Statistics were compiled for aircraft surface electric and magnetic field derivatives and for lightning current and current derivative flowing through the aircraft. Detailed information on the instrumentation and data obtained are found in The interaction of lightning with airborne vehicles.

International Conference on Lightning and Static Electricity, Dayton, OH, June 24-26, 1986:
Wide bandwidth electrostatic field sensor for lightning research 

11 Dec 2007 ABC News 20/20 Interview with Bruce Fisher
NASA Lightning Research on ABC News 20/20
ABC News anchor Elizabeth Vargas interviewed NASA's Bruce Fisher in New York City

They flew in a plane that was struck by lightning more than 700 times ... on purpose.

They were part of NASA's Storm Hazards Research Program, an eight-year research effort in the 1980's that helped save lives by improving aviation lightning protection standards.

Bruce Fisher of NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., was one of the researchers who flew through hundreds of thunderstorms on board a two-seat F-106B jet. "The lightning was the fun part of the mission," says Fisher. "The difficult part was the turbulence. Thunderstorms have lots of updrafts and downdrafts. We would go up and go down plus or minus three or four thousand feet."

Fisher recounted his adventures to ABC News 20/20 anchor Elizabeth Vargas in an interview videotaped in a New York City office that was transformed into a studio. The program was addressing travel myths so producers looked for an expert who could answer the question whether lightning could bring down an airplane.

Having experienced more than 216 lightning strikes on board the NASA F-106, Fisher has a wealth of knowledge. "Sometimes you would see a long jagged arc," Fisher told Vargas. "Sometimes you'd see a flash or sometimes you'd see sparks flying off the long nose boom that comes out of the front of the F-106." Elizabeth Vargas (left) and Bruce Fisher.

ABC News 20/20 anchor Elizabeth Vargas interviewed NASA's Bruce Fisher in New York City. Credit: NASA/Kathy Barnstorff.

In all the F-106B flew 1,496 thunderstorm penetrations and got hit by lightning 714 times. Fisher and the team learned a lot about how lightning and thunderstorms behave and how aircraft affect and are affected by them.

"Virtually all in-flight lightning strikes to aircraft, especially as you get above about 20,000 feet altitude, are triggered by the aircraft's presence not a random intercept or a blunder, where you just unfortunately run into a naturally existing channel," commented Fisher.

The researchers also figured out where to fly to find the most lightning in a storm. "Triggered lightning strikes to aircraft are more likely to occur towards the top of the thunderstorm, particularly in the anvil," said Fisher. "Our old rule was fly high and fry."

"Fly high and fry" is not a rule that most passengers want their airline pilots to follow. Fortunately most airliners fly out of their way to avoid thunderstorms. Even so federal statistics indicate the average commercial airliner will be struck by lightning once a year, typically near the freezing level.

But because of the work done by the NASA team and its government and industry partners, technologies on aircraft, such as computerized systems and displays inside the plane and composite materials on the outside, are protected from the dangers of lightning. This F106B jet got struck by lightning 714 times during NASA's Storm Hazards Research Program.

A two-seat F106B jet made 1,496 thunderstorm penetrations and got struck by lightning 714 times during NASA's eight-year Storm Hazards Research Program. Credit: NASA

"In a commercial aircraft that's certificated for all weather flight you're not going to run into a risk at all. What you get with a lightning strike -- with a commercially certificated aircraft for all weather flight -- is burn marks on the extremities of the aircraft," commented Fisher. "The lightning current does not get inside to the individuals or the equipment inside. The aircraft are designed to keep the lightning on the outside of the plane."

The design standards the team came up with are so effective that no U.S. airliner has crashed as a result of a lightning strike in decades.
Kathy Barnstorff
NASA Langley Research Center

Airborne Strike Lightening Research

Lightening Strike Research begins at 05:00 minutes of this video.  (Program manager Norm Crabill)