Welp, Lightning Just Struck Two F-35 Lightnings

  • Two Japan-based F-35B Lightning IIs were struck by, well, lightning.
  • The pilots escaped unharmed, but the aircraft suffered more than $2.5 million in damages.
  • The U.S. Marine Corps does protect the F-35B from lightning strikes, but only on the ground.

    Two U.S. Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II fighter jets were struck by their namesake while flying high over Japan. Neither pilot was injured, though the two planes collectively incurred more than $2 million in damage.

    The incident took place over Makurazaki in southern Japan. The two F-35s, based at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, were on their way to the island of Okinawa when lightning struck. Both planes were able to shrug off the strike and safely land in an undisclosed location. The pilots were uninjured.

    Lightning aircraft strikes are surprisingly common, with the average commercial transport plane struck once a year. A bolt of lighting typically releases the equivalent of 300 million Volts and about 30,000 Amps—enough energy to power a 100-watt incandescent lightbulb for three months.

    A lightning strike could theoretically destroy an aircraft in midair, but modern jets are designed with lightning strikes in mind. The advanced composite materials that typically make up the nose, fuselage, and wings are built with a thin layer of embedded conductive materials. This turns every plane into a flying Faraday Cage, with the plane’s fuel, pilot, electronics, and engine safely inside. A lightning strike would follow along the skin of the aircraft and cause minimal damage, if any at all.

    That’s likely what happened to the two F-35s involved in the incident. The internal systems, including the pilots, were shielded from the strike. The $2.5 million repair bill was likely due to damage to antennas embedded in the F-35’s skin.

    The F-35’s antennas are uniquely vulnerable, and they’re a major reason why the jet can only fly at supersonic speeds for short periods of time. Another possible victim is the Distributed Aperture System, a network of six infrared cameras embedded in each F-35’s fuselage that gives the pilot 360-degree vision.

    The Marine Corps classifies this as a Class A incident, which involves $2.5 million or more in damage, or the destruction of the aircraft. Alternately, a Class A incident could involve death or permanent total disability to a service member.

    A Class B incident, meanwhile, involves less than $2.5 million down to $600,000 in damage, as well as a permanent partial disability or three or more people hospitalized. The rising cost of military aircraft means even a fairly minor incident could end up as a Class B or even an A.

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