Can you fly in a thunderstorm?
Oh, great. It's raining cats and dogs, just as you're about to depart for a sunny holiday destination. Only moments before it's your turn to board, thunder and lightning emerge in the distance. What do you do? Turn around and head home? Or go ahead and board the aircraft so you can enjoy your well-earned holiday?
High and dry
You choose the latter option, of course! While lightning may seem especially menacing, there's no cause for concern: aircraft are well-equipped to handle a potential lightning strike. Many older aircraft have an exterior hull made entirely of metal, which conducts the lightning away from them and prevents the electricity from entering the cabin. Newer aircraft have effective built-in protection from thunderstorms, too, in the form of electrostatic dischargers. You may have noticed them before: they are the small black antennae (carbon rods) on the tips of the wings. These rods conduct the static electricity away from the hull and discharge it into the air.
Flying around storms
Which isn't to say that aircraft can just fly straight through any storm they encounter. A lightning strike can, in fact, cause minor damage to the aircraft. What's more, thunderstorms are often accompanied by other types of severe weather such as strong winds and hail. As such, pilots prefer not to fly directly through a thunderstorm. Many aircraft are equipped with a meteorological radar so that pilots can detect approaching storms in plenty of time and steer around them. In such cases, the pilot will consult air traffic control and plot out a different flight path.
Taking cover at Schiphol
On the ground, however, it's a different story altogether. As soon as a thunderstorm is reported within 5 kilometres of Schiphol Centre, the bad weather alert system (OWS) will warn employees by triggering flashing orange lights and sirens. When that happens, our Aircraft Flow Manager will immediately issue a ground handling ban. Employees who are outdoors refuelling the aircraft, loading baggage, and so on must immediately halt work and take cover. While aircraft are permitted to land during the ground handling ban, all processes that involve passengers or employees being outside are suspended. The chances of a lightning strike near a large metal object in an open area are significant, and by issuing a ground handling ban we reduce the risk of accidents.
In other words, while you can travel safely and comfortably in an aircraft during a thunderstorm, it's possible you will encounter a brief wait before you're able to take off or disembark!