How Aircraft Protect from Lightning?


The nature of air travel means that aircraft have to be able to withstand a myriad of conditions both light and extreme. Something no aircraft wants to go up against is lightning, but air travelers expect a hassle-free experience, and delays or cancellations are only an option in the most extreme conditions. Lightning, while not ideal, is not necessarily cause for grounding an aircraft. Instead, aircraft manufacturers take measures to protect their machinery from the elements.

The relatively new Boeing 787 is made up of over 50% carbon fiber composites called carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP). This is because of CFRP’s strength while remaining lightweight. However, CFRP is mostly non-conductive and therefore requires additional protection from lightning strikes. To counteract this, the 787 is fitted with highly-conductive expanded metal foil (EMF). The EMF is coated in protective layers to prevent moisture or other factors from causing corrosion, leading to lower conductivity and increased vulnerability to lightning.

Aircraft are also put under extreme stress during takeoff and landing. Takeoff causes extreme cooling, and landing causes extreme heating. This thermal stress causes expansion and compression of layers throughout the aircraft’s composite structures. A single trip is highly unlikely to do any harm on composite structures, but over time each layer becomes weaker and the risk of failure increases. Thermal stress can also cumulate in strained parts and displacement, which increases the risk of crack formation.

In order to minimize risks and maintenance costs that result from damage in the protective coatings and EMF, it is key to evaluate the thermal performance of each layer in the surface protection design. To do this, researchers at Boeing Research and Technology use multiphysics simulation and physical measurements to study the effect of the EMF on stress displacement throughout the entire composite structure.

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