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Could lightning have brought down Air France Flight 447?

Air France flight AF447 missing lightning brazilAirline officials say that an electrical storm may have been to blame for the disappearance of Paris-bound Air France Flight 447 between Natal, Brazil, and Africa last night. The flight, which was carrying 228 people, last had contact with air traffic controllers at about 10:33 P.M. local time. The plane sent an automatic message about 15 minutes later noting that there was a "fault in an electronic circuit," reports the London Times.

"The most likely thing is that the plane was hit by lightning," Air France's director of communications, Francois Brouse said, the Times reports. "The plane was in a stormy area with strong turbulence," he said. Search crews have been dispatched to look for wreckage by air and water, but the plane remains missing. "It's certainly no longer in the air now," said Pierre-Henri Gourgeon, the airline's CEO. "It would have run out of fuel."

But could lightning be enough to bring down an Airbus 330-200? ScientificAmerican.com asked a senior engineer at a company that creates lightning-safe systems about planes and lightning a few years ago. He explains that although lightning strikes each of the U.S.'s commercial jets at least once a year, pilots and passengers shouldn't normally experience anything more than a bright flash and loud noise. And even though aluminum aircraft bodies are good conductors of electricity, lightning usually stays on the outside—but if it finds a way in, he notes, it can destroy electronics and ignite fuel.

Read more about what happens when lightning strikes an airplane here.

Image of an Airbus 330-200 (the same type of plane that has been reported missing) Quatar Airways flight courtesy of malpo90 via Flickr

 
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