By Tim Hopper
Special to GUIDON
The weather forecast was typical of a warm, North Carolina spring afternoon — visibility was great with 10 miles and a 30 percent chance of isolated thunderstorms.
We had based our mission operations out of a local airport. As lead aircraft in a flight of three Black Hawks, we were completing our last leg of what was considered a routine infiltration/exfiltration mission.
The unit flight operations had already radioed a weather update reporting a line of thunderstorms in the area, so we knew we needed to hurry. In the distance, lightning began flashing around a storm we were attempting to beat back to the airport.
We’d only been on the ground a few minutes and had begun to shut down when torrents of rain started to fall.
Lightning was striking close enough that no one wanted to be outside or make the risky 100-yard dash to the fixed base operations building. Instead, everyone held fast at their crew duty stations inside the aircraft.
After a period of time, the rain began letting up and everyone either got out or shifted around within the aircraft, trying to stay dry while getting a breath of fresh air.
The left cargo door remained open, but it somewhat sheltered us from the elements. That’s where I decided to stand. I leaned against the two center forward/aft facing seatback support posts to wait out the rain.
We had pulled out the laptop to close the mission and began to informally discuss the after-action details when another wave of wind and rain resumed with lightning trailing three to four miles away.
The lightning moved to within one-half a mile. I moved toward the inside of the aircraft, but wasn’t quite fast enough.
A bolt of lightning lit up the immediate area with a brilliant flash accompanied by the sound of electricity moving over the outside skin of the aircraft.
The hair on my arms and neck literally stood on end. There was a sudden loud snap and a sting in the middle of my back. The jolt of electricity took my breath away, moving down my back and legs to the ground and leaving a small, red welt on my back. My legs and feet felt numb and tingly, and I was now six feet from the aircraft, bent over.
The aircraft has grounding cables on the inside of each main landing gear, but bigger is better, as far as grounding goes.
Lightning had moved over the skin of the aircraft and down the metal cargo area seatback support posts. The strike left two one-eighth-inch scorch marks one-quarter an inch apart on the seatback support post canvas covering.
I’m not sure what the right answer was to prevent this incident, but one thing is for sure: It wasn’t standing outside the aircraft acting as an additional grounding rod.
(Editor’s note: this article was originally published in Risk Management Magazine.)