Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Shocking Tales

This interesting story on lightning leads off with:
In the summer of 2002, I was camped at the mouth of the French River, lying on my Therm-a-Rest waiting out a thunderstorm, when my tent was struck by lightning. It was over before I knew what had happened, before adrenalin had any role to play, before fear took over. My tent poles took the charge and I was spared, completely. The narrow escape got me asking around. How often does this happen? It turns out everybody has a lightning story.
Okay. Here are mine.

When I was seven, I was walking along the side of the apartment building in which I lived, where the roof eave shielded me from the rain. Suddenly, I noticed a bright white-yellow ball, apparently the size of a large beach ball, about 100 yards away tracing an erratic path, while leaving a trail on my retina, towards a utility pole. When it got to within about 15 feet of the transformer mounted at the top of the pole, it exploded into a bright flash and a gut shaking boom. In fact, it looked exactly like this.

On a night much later in life that was very dark, but not at all stormy, I was flying an F-111, descending to enter a low level route in northern Germany. My right seater was a newbie, and this was his first night terrain following radar flight in theater. In solid cloud, passing through about 3000 feet above the ground, I started hearing a screech on the radio, followed in just about the amount of time it takes to read this phrase by a blinding flash and a gut clenching boom.

Reflexively, I keyed the interphone and said "We're okay".

I couldn't see a thing. For those of you who aren't familiar with spatial disorientation, it would not have taken a lot of seconds without being able to see the artificial horizon before things would start getting very ugly very quickly. I leaned as far forward as the shoulder harness would allow, to the point where my oxygen mask was nearly touching the instrument panel. At that range (and at an age where I could focus that closely), I could just make out the attitude indicator.

I advanced the throttles to full (cold) power and set the pitch attitude at 10 degrees. Since I couldn't see the airspeed indicator, I had to pick a combination of pitch and power that wouldn't add to our problems.

Except, as my vision cleared, it had. The airspeed was rolling off. Keeping in mind that the F-111 is, so far as I know, the only airplane that will spin before it stalls, this was not a good thing. We were down on power, low on altitude, and running out of airspeed.

Slamming both throttles into afterburner solved the immediate problem. When my vision further cleared, I saw the right motor languishing at idle -- the thunderclap had compressor stalled the thing. Retarding the throttle to idle for a few seconds cleared the stall, and back to England we went.

The WSO was very quiet on the way back.

Considering the circumstances, it was imperative, in nearly the way that drawing breath is imperative, to debrief the flight at the O'Club bar.

When our first round hit the table, my WSO said, "I was reaching for the ejection handle when you said 'We are okay'. I thought the airplane had exploded. If you hadn't said anything, we would have done a silk letdown."

Same life, somewhat later. First night of Desert Storm. We were skirting a squall line of spectacularly active thunderstorms running along southern Turkey, just north of the Syrian border. As if those visuals, and the overall circumstances weren't already enough, what looked for all the world like a particularly bright yellow-green tennis ball formed on the pitot tube (pointy thing sticking out of the airplane's nose), then crept ever so slowly along the radome and up my side of the windscreen until it reached a point adjacent to the gunsight, whereupon it looked just as if the gunsight hoovered it right out of reality.

At that precise moment, another tennis ball formed on the pitot tube and began its leisurely journey. Then another, and another ...

For about five minutes.

If I was stroke prone, that would have done it for sure.

Okay, those are my stories. What are yours?

[Later in the article, the author claims lightning hits farmers more often than any other group. Nonsense, pilots are. I have been hit four times, and I don't know of any pilot with any significant amount of experience who hasn't been hit at least once]


Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I've never been hit or even near-missed, but I did watch something I've never seen described anywhere, although it must happen often.

In Virginia Beach, Va., there was a largish pylon carrying electric transmission lines (don't know what capacity but over 100 kV for sure) at the end of my street.

One afternoon something stalled over the pylon and kept smiting it with lightning. It was barely raining, and I stood there and watched, from about 150 yards away, as lighting hit the pylon about every 10 seconds for 20 minutes.

Black melted stuff was dropping off the tower like chocolate off a candy bar on a hot day.

I don't know where the substation that served our street was, but we didn't lose power.

As far as I could see, none of the other pylons got hit.

August 06, 2008 4:40 PM  
Blogger erp said...

Terrific stories. Glad you came through them alive. What an exciting life. We had only one experience with lightning and we weren't even home. When we came home from a camping trip, the TV was fried. Luckily the breakers tripped and it didn't start a fire.

August 06, 2008 7:49 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

On the very top of White Mountain Peak (3rd highest peak in California) in the Inyo National Forest is (or at least was) as small cabin owned by the UCLA geology department. I had a friend who was doing a geology postdoc at UCLA and was basically living in that cabin for the summer so I went and visited him with another friend.

Even though it was August, the weather was pretty bad with lots of thunderstorms and thunder snow storms so we spent most of the time in the cabin which leaked like a sieve. Being engineers, we quickly rigged up this elaborate plastic covering below the roof to catch the water and direct it to a single hole where it dripped into a bucket. We would then empty the bucket every half hour or so by tossing the water out the door.

Having to empty the bucket got old, and noticing some old, unused, metal pipes at one end of the cabin, we decided to have the pipes catch the water and direct it out the window.

Just as my other friend finished the final bit of the piping system and stuck the last metal pipe out the window, lightning struck. The cabin had four lightning rods on it, two of which had already been mostly destroyed by being struck so many times in the past. I assume that the other two rods absorbed most of the energy.

However, the thunder clap was so loud that I was completely deaf for about 20 seconds. I distinctly remember think, "this is bad!" Slowly, my hearing came back much to my relief but my ears were ringing for a couple of days.

My friend with the pipe had burns on his hands where he was holding the pipe. Not serious burns or anything, but there must still have been some pretty good current going through the water and through the pipe and then to ground. Good thing it didn't go through my friend!

As you might guess, we gave up on the piping concept and went back to the emptying the bucket.

August 06, 2008 10:51 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

Okay, one more almost lightning story.

Four of us had climbed (hiked up) one of the lower peaks in the sierras (I forget which one). It was a bit cloudy and windy but there wasn't any obvious sign of electrical storms. We were eating a little snack and one of the hikers went to hand me a slice of apple.

Before the apple reached my hand, a spark jumped several inches between us from the tip of the apple to my fingers. At 10,000V per inch, that was quite a differential between us. Then her hair stood completely on end like a cartoon where wiley coyote stuck his finger in an electrical socket.

We freaked, dropped all the snack food, and high-tailed it for lower ground. Within about 10 minutes, the peak where we were was getting pummeled by lightning. Hey, it was 10 minutes, I guess there really was no hurry!

August 06, 2008 10:59 PM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

Even though I live in the MidWest and seem thunderstorms on a very regular basis, I have no interesting experience with lightning. So apparently not everyone has a story.

August 07, 2008 4:43 AM  
Blogger Mike Beversluis said...


August 07, 2008 12:04 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Since an airplane is a faraday cage, getting hit by lightning is, in general, psychologically unpleasant, but not dangerous.

Completely unlike being caught out on high terrain ...

August 08, 2008 1:38 AM  
Blogger Selena Dreamy said...

Captivating tale!

If the F-111 is also known as the "Starfighter", I just happen to be aware of its abysmal record of air-crashes over Europe, Germany in particular...not counting near-misses by lightening!

August 08, 2008 9:08 AM  

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