Lightning Likely Not Sole Cause of Crash

APThe relative of a passenger crying outside Pulkovo Airport on Wednesday.
While lightning has been blamed for Tuesday's downing of a Pulkovo Airlines Tu-154 jet, it is unlikely to have been the sole cause of the crash, which left 170 dead.

Lightning incidents are not unheard of on airplane flights, aviation expert Oleg Panteleyev said, with an average of one incident every two years in some areas. But few of those end in disaster, thanks to onboard equipment.

That equipment includes conductors in the plane's wings to dissipate electricity in the event of a lightning strike, said Oleg Yermolov, deputy head of the Interstate Aviation Committee.

Yermolov said he could not remember a single instance in the past several decades of a commercial jet going down after being struck by lightning.

Tuesday's flight took off from the Russian Black Sea resort of Anapa and was headed to St. Petersburg when it crashed midafternoon near Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine.

Ukrainian officials said a storm with high winds, driving rain and lightning was raging through the region at the time of the crash. Russian Emergency Situations Ministry spokeswoman Irina Andrianova, citing Ukrainian officials, said the plane was likely struck by lightning.

The Tu-154 was equipped with radar that would have alerted the pilot to worsening weather conditions well in advance of the danger zone, Yermolov said. Air traffic controllers also would have pointed the plane away from the storm, Panteleyev said.

Panteleyev noted the pilot appeared to be steering the plane away from the storm when the plane went down. "It looks like the change of course was not sufficient to bypass the giant front," said Panteleyev, the editor of the aviation web site Aviaport.ru.

Once caught in the storm, lightning could have contributed to the plane crash, Yermolov suggested. While lightning itself might not have caused any damage to the airplane, it could have induced relatively small electrical currents that could have damaged electronic systems on board.

"A plane shouldn't enter a storm area, but once it's there, some parts of the equipment can fail," Yermolov said.

Russian airliners are no more vulnerable to lightning than are foreign planes, Panteleyev said.

One recent high-profile incident involving a plane struck by lightning occurred in April 2005, when British Prime Minister Tony Blair was flying aboard his campaign jet as it was approaching London. Those on board the jet said they heard a loud bang and the plane wobbled from side to side, but it landed safely at Heathrow Airport 10 minutes later.

Not a single U.S. airplane has been downed by lightning in at least 40 years, nor has lightning caused any plane crashes in U.S. airspace in that time.