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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Multiple lightning strikes’ hit Spirit plane en route to Cancún

Spirit passengers flying out of Philadelphia had their holiday plans for Mexico thrown off track

(iStock/Washington Post Illustration)
2 min

A Spirit Airlines flight headed to Cancún International Airport returned to Philadelphia on Friday morning after crew reported the plane was hit by “multiple lightning strikes," the Federal Aviation Administration confirmed.

Flight-tracking site FlightAware shows that the plane, an Airbus A321, took off from Philadelphia International Airport just after 10 a.m. and landed back at the airport right after 11 a.m. According to a statement from the FAA, the flight landed safely. The agency said it will investigate.

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“Our crew handled the situation perfectly and had a smooth & safe return trip to the gate,” Erik Hofmeyer, Spirit’s director of communications, wrote in an email to The Washington Post.

The incident unfolded as a massive winter storm moved into the area. By just after 3 p.m. Friday, more than 4,600 U.S. flights had been canceled, and more than 6,400 others were delayed, according to FlightAware.

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According to the National Weather Service, commercial passenger planes are struck by lightning an average of once or twice a year.

“They are designed and built to have conducting paths through the plane to take the lightning strike and conduct the currents,” the Weather Service says.

RIP, Spirit — America’s most hated airline

According to Boeing, airplanes are most susceptible to lightning strikes when climbing or descending. The likelihood of a plane getting an electric jolt is highest at 5,000 to 15,000 feet and lessens above 20,000 feet. In addition, 70 percent of lightning strikes occur in rainy conditions; the odds also increase in near-freezing temperatures. Thunderstorms, however, do not have to be present.

Though lightning striking planes is a fairly common and innocuous occurrence, the weather phenomenon has caused several devastating crashes over the years.

According to AeroSafety World, a publication run by the Flight Safety Foundation, one of the earliest recorded incidents involved a Ford Tri-Motor plane that was hit by lightning on Sept. 3, 1929. The transcontinental plane went down near Mt. Taylor, N.M., killing all eight members.

Two of the most high-profile cases happened less than a decade apart. In early December 1963, Pan American Flight 214 was circling over Cecil County, Md., awaiting clearance to land in Philadelphia when lightning struck. The plane exploded and crashed in a corn field near Elkton, Md. All 81 passengers and crew members died.

Eight years later, LANSA Flight 508 went down over the Peruvian Amazon jungle. Only one of 92 passengers, a 17-year-old named Juliane Koepcke, survived after a harrowing two weeks alone in the jungle.