This week, on 22nd March 2017, my Virgin Atlantic plane was hit by lightning, which was very normal. We returned to Gatwick, which was not. What happened? Is lightning dangerous? Will I finally get the right things out of the overhead locker!?
After realising we were sitting on the Premium Economy bulkhead row of Virgin Atlantic’s 747 Hot Lips, we started to sort out the bits and pieces we would need for the flight. Sitting on front row, you have to put everything in the overhead locker to ensure that the aisles and exits are clear.
First I forgot my headphones in my bag so Karl had to get up and fetch it. Then I realised I’d forgotten my slippers and pillow in my bag, so up he jumped again. Five minutes passed. We sat chatting and sipping our prosecco with the friends we were travelling with, Carolyn and James, and I realised I’d forgotten to get my USB cable out…he told me I should get it myself.
There was a slight delay pushing back from the gate but soon we were rolling steadily towards the runway. One quick right turn and we picked up speed. The nose came up quickly (we are used to smaller planes than the huge 747s) but thankfully the rest of the jet caught up with it and we started a steep climb.
It was a foul, grey, rainy day in London, the kind that makes travelling to Jamaica all the sweeter. The rain had started just as we had dashed into Gatwick’s North Terminal and so we knew it might be a bumpy ride through the clouds.
We were right. A bit of turbulence buffeted the plane but nothing too scary, just enough to jog James awake from his preflight nap. Carolyn and I heard a thump. It wasn’t a normal plane noise and so I assumed it was someone’s luggage in the overhead locker sliding back or similar, as we were at quite an angle of ascent.
We were discussing which films we should watch first when the Captain came over the tannoy. He announced that we had been struck by lightning on the nose of the plane. “I knew I saw a flash!” exclaimed Karl. The Captain continued by telling us that we were going to return to Gatwick to check the extent of the damage. Before we could do this, however, we had to jettison lots of fuel to ensure we didn’t land too heavy.
So we started to swoop across the South-East coast of the UK with a steady stream of fuel trailing from each wing. I know Karl’s family track our flights from the PC screens but I don’t think my parents do, which is a shame because they might have seen us from their Brighton-based vantage point. Apparently the plane disappeared from the tracking site for a little while…
The Cabin Crew
The cabin crew were still laughing and joking with each other and so I wasn’t overly scared. A quiet cabin crew is a worried cabin crew. Karl had a quick chat with one of them. He said he’d been flying for ten years. He’s had one lightning strike before where the plane had flown around for half an hour and then carried on, so this was unusual. I knew the poor crew would be fielding questions with no more information than that which we had heard and so we sat down and let them get on with putting everything away that they had been preparing for service.
When it comes to aviation, lightning strikes aren’t a big deal. Most aeroplanes get hit by lightning every year or two and it usually doesn’t impact their ability to fly. Planes are designed to withstand a lightening strike. It hits at one extremity (a wing, the tail) and is diffused through the other. The construction of the plane’s body allows the charge to be kept away from the area that exists inside the shell. Karl speculated that if the lightning had hit the nose of the aircraft, it might have upset the navigational equipment.
I’m going to be honest, I was feeling strange mix of nervousness and excitement. I think it was adrenaline. I have such faith in pilots but if it was the navigational equipment, thats quite serious. I sat and buzzed as we came in to land back at London’s gatwick airport. We came in quite quickly but it felt just like a standard landing. We saw emergency vehicles lined up along the runway ready to help if things had gone awry. Some people on the plane began clapping, I wondered if they were doing the American thing or if they had been more scared than we were.
We all disembarked and we got very excited when we thought we spotted the damage on the front of plane.
Virgin had given us £15 vouchers to go and get some lunch while they swapped the aircraft. We very happily found Jamie’s and ordered delicious Italian dishes and cocktails. Other people were furious on arriving back but they hadn’t cancelled the flight and so we felt fine.
The Next Plane
Back down to the departure gates and we prepared to board the 747 Ruby Tuesday. Some nervous flyers were relieved to see that it had been an aircraft swap.
Others were irate that they were still waiting. One passenger took to twitter whilst trying to encourage others to join her, many more shouted at management and generally made a fuss of themselves. We were about five hours delayed at this point. We brushed off the passenger who was trying to start a petition, I mean, come on, it was for your own safety!!
We got a chance to talk to the Captain on the second flight, just before our decent.
He explained that Karl had been right. The lightning had hit the radar dome at the tip of the plane’s nose and so it would have been foolhardy to continue on. It may have have stopped working, even fallen off. The problem was, the pilots couldn’t see if it was there was any damage and would have had to pop out at 30,000 feet to check. Engineers back at Gatwick were busy taking it apart and making sure it was all in perfect working order. He also said that the damage we thought we had spotted was probably just where paint had worn off and not as a result of the lightning at all. Doh!
He was a very kind chap who answered all our questions patiently and politely, despite the extra long day he had had as well. I think he, and we, were just looking forward to unwinding in the Caribbean sun that awaited us in the morning.
That flight is as close to an “incident” as we hope to get on a plane. Something mild enough to keep let the crew continue laughing, but serious enough that I know the pilots do a fantastic job. It hasn’t scared us off though. We will remain Flying Fluskeys.