Alaska Airlines and Lightning Strikes

By: Guyinjeep16 , 11:01 PM GMT on August 13, 2014

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Alaska Airlines and Lightning strikes:

First of all, Thanks to Alaska Airlines for allowing me to meet with one of the most respected lightning specialists at NOAA this week, Vlad Mazur.
He helped me piece together some things regarding LTG strikes in my mind, and shared his vast amounts of data with us.
I thought I would share what I gathered from the meeting and how it relates to the dispatch group.

The big question of the meeting of course was about ASA and its frequency of Aircraft (AC) initiated LTG strikes.

Q-Why does Alaska Airlines seem to average more LTG strikes per aircraft when we don't operate as frequently in the intense lightning regions as other airlines?

A-As I have stated before, most LTG strikes on an AC are initiated by the aircraft itself. The metal bodies of the planes intensify the electrical field that exist in storm clouds as the AC passes through them. Explanation to follow in how this plays directly into the reason as to why ASA is subject to LTG strikes while not flying a large amount of our flights in high LTG regions.

There are a couple reasons for the Frequency of LTG strikes;
-In a large, severe, high frequency LTG Thunderstorms (TS) are producing lightning and most airlines know that they should not fly into or near these large Cumulonimbus clouds. The electrical fields of these large storms are producing LTG because of the storms intense updrafts, hail, precipitation, and these strong storms are easily spotted by powerful on board weather radar that are used by all commercial airlines.

Alaska Airlines (ASA) obstacles:
In the case of ASA, we often fly in regions where there are smaller showers (cells) that have electrical fields too, yet these electrical fields are often NOT strong enough to cause LTG on its own. Since there is no LTG in the shower or cell and there is no mention of TS's in the forecast, this means the pilot and dispatcher have no real reason to think a TS to be a problem. This remains true UNTIL, one of our aircrafts flies into this electrical field, enhances the electrical field and BAM!!! LTG strikes one of our AC. This all happening when there was no sign of LTG previously in the shower.

So there in lies the problem for ASA. We fly through these types of borderline TS's from the Alaska coastline all the way down the west coast to KLAX in some cases. Forecasting when these small cells can cause LTG strikes and when to avoid these cells is a tall order, but could be done with someone dedicated to watching storms as they approach our problem area being the west coast.

The types of conditions that best set up these LTG strike scenarios will be done in another blog in the near future.

Thanks
Michael Snyder

-I am a trainer for the Alaska Airlines dispatch group and anything expressed in this blog is my opinion and not necessarily the opinion of Alaska Airlines.

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5. WunderAlertBot (Admin)
9:01 PM GMT on August 15, 2014
Guyinjeep16 has created a new entry.
4. Guyinjeep16
8:47 PM GMT on August 15, 2014
I don't have access to any Horizon information on LGT strikes, but I think that maybe I could come up with that information if I really went after it.

I dispatched Dash 8 -100's in Hawaii and we suffered a few LGT strikes, but we were only flying 8 planes at the maximum in the mid 2000's

I live near KSEA and I have seen Q400's get hit by LGT, one time in particular was during the winter and the convergence zone dropped a couple inches of SG in the KSEA area and 2 Alaska Jets, and one Horizon Q400 triggered strikes on final as this band of showers was moving through. I couldn't see the planes get hit in detail but I could see the plane enter the Clouds of the CVZN and then BAM! I confirmed these strikes with Dispatchers working at the time.

Im sure Horizon and the Q400 fleet has its issues with LTG, especially flying in those moderate SHRA, and getting the unexpected LGT strike, into PDX and SEA.

One study has shown that the most LGT strikes will hit an Aircraft at about 36,000', in cloud. Approx. 1 per minute!

However if you are flying an commercial plane into a power TS such as that then you probably didn't have any choice!

Quoting 3. DataPilot:

I'm curious. Do you have statistics about aircraft-initiated lightning strikes on turboprop vs jet powered aircraft? My gut feeling is that prop planes like the Horizon Q400s might get struck more frequently than a CRJ or 737, but I have nothing to back that up.

Which, by the way, only increases the allure of the Q400s. I drive past the Eugene airport a couple of times a day, and am always psyched when I get to see a Q400 landing or taking off over my head. Alaska used to fly MD-80s into Eugene years ago, but switched to Horizon CRJs, then more recently, to Q400s. When I ride on an airliner nowadays, it's usually on a Q400, and I always try to get a window seat right next to an engine. What aviation nut doesn't want to sit by one of those engines, with their gigantic, 6-bladed props? I can't help but wonder whether they increase, decrease or have no effect on the likelihood of a lightning strike.
Member Since: September 8, 2009 Posts: 1 Comments: 6
3. DataPilot
3:25 AM GMT on August 15, 2014
I'm curious. Do you have statistics about aircraft-initiated lightning strikes on turboprop vs jet powered aircraft? My gut feeling is that prop planes like the Horizon Q400s might get struck more frequently than a CRJ or 737, but I have nothing to back that up.

Which, by the way, only increases the allure of the Q400s. I drive past the Eugene airport a couple of times a day, and am always psyched when I get to see a Q400 landing or taking off over my head. Alaska used to fly MD-80s into Eugene years ago, but switched to Horizon CRJs, then more recently, to Q400s. When I ride on an airliner nowadays, it's usually on a Q400, and I always try to get a window seat right next to an engine. What aviation nut doesn't want to sit by one of those engines, with their gigantic, 6-bladed props? I can't help but wonder whether they increase, decrease or have no effect on the likelihood of a lightning strike.
Member Since: January 5, 2009 Posts: 11 Comments: 1287
2. Guyinjeep16
9:30 PM GMT on August 14, 2014
Thanks for your info!
We had a plane leave Seattle yesterday when they lost all icing capabilities and he soon after went into a decent SHRA and started icing up and had to declare emergency and head back to Seattle.

Icing is no fun!

Small scale details such as the Puget Sound Convergence Zone can really create havoc, with Aircraft initiated LTG and big wind shifts at SeaTac Airport.

And another good point about radar coverage here in the Northwest. Mountains cut down Doppler returns like nothing else.

Quoting 1. DataPilot:

Very interesting post.

I am not surprised to hear that aircraft experience more lightning strikes on the west coast than elsewhere. The relatively small "baby" thunderstorms that we get are indeed harder to spot on radar than the behemoths that form elsewhere in the US.

I've never had the privilege of flying a plane with on-board weather radar, but I do know that ground-based weather radar coverage in this area (southwestern Oregon) is spotty. The Medford NEXRAD sits on top of 7000' Mt. Ashland and cannot detect storms that form at lower altitudes, particularly near the outer edge of its range. I have seen storms - thunder, lightning, the whole ball of whacks - that completely failed to paint on the Medford radar. But once those storms moved a few miles north, Portland radar could pick them up.

The one and only time I've flown into a thunderstorm was when I was vectored into it by ATC. The controller couldn't see it, I couldn't see it (embedded), there were no TS in the forecast, and no PIREPS. I wound up getting slammed around in turbulence, surrounded by lightning, with my wings full of ice. No deicing equipment on board, either. The plane popped out of the little storm intact after a few minutes, although I swear, it felt like hours.

It just goes to show that even borderline cells can be pretty darned powerful.
Member Since: September 8, 2009 Posts: 1 Comments: 6
1. DataPilot
1:09 AM GMT on August 14, 2014
Very interesting post.

I am not surprised to hear that aircraft experience more lightning strikes on the west coast than elsewhere. The relatively small "baby" thunderstorms that we get are indeed harder to spot on radar than the behemoths that form elsewhere in the US.

I've never had the privilege of flying a plane with on-board weather radar, but I do know that ground-based weather radar coverage in this area (southwestern Oregon) is spotty. The Medford NEXRAD sits on top of 7000' Mt. Ashland and cannot detect storms that form at lower altitudes, particularly near the outer edge of its range. I have seen storms - thunder, lightning, the whole ball of whacks - that completely failed to paint on the Medford radar. But once those storms moved a few miles north, Portland radar could pick them up.

The one and only time I've flown into a thunderstorm was when I was vectored into it by ATC. The controller couldn't see it, I couldn't see it (embedded), there were no TS in the forecast, and no PIREPS. I wound up getting slammed around in turbulence, surrounded by lightning, with my wings full of ice. No deicing equipment on board, either. The plane popped out of the little storm intact after a few minutes, although I swear, it felt like hours.

It just goes to show that even borderline cells can be pretty darned powerful.
Member Since: January 5, 2009 Posts: 11 Comments: 1287

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About Guyinjeep16

I am the a dispatch weather trainer at Alaska Airlines based in Seattle, WA. I notify the company operations about up and coming weather events.

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