Safety First: How Lightning Affects Airfield Operations

The Chicago-area experienced severe storms this week, halting operations at Chicago-O’Hare International Airport more than once. On Wednesday morning, Chicago news anchor Alan Krashesky posted a video that perfectly illustrates why airfield operations stop during a thunderstorm.

The lightning strike Krashesky posted was part of the same storm that caused delays and cancellations at O’Hare all morning. We posted this image on twitter about an hour after the lightning strike. Flights bound for Chicago held outside the storm area or diverted to other airports, like Indianapolis or Columbus.

Flights holding or diverting as thunderstorms move through the O’Hare terminal area


Krashesky posted the video just after 9:00 in Chicago. The relevant metars are listed below. For those who aren’t familiar with the metar format, the text string describes a thunderstorm with significant lightning surrounding the airfield.

KORD 121406Z 18008G15KT 7SM -TSRA SCT012 BKN029CB BKN045 OVC130 24/21 A2990 RMK AO2 PK WND 14030/1352 LTG DSNT ALQDS GSB1353E1356 FRQ LTGICCG VC E-SE TS VC E-SE MOV SE P0047 T02390206

KORD 121358Z 17016G33KT 3SM R10L/0600VP6000FT TSRA BR SCT012 BKN027CB OVC090 22/21 A2991 RMK AO2 PK WND 14030/1352 LTG DSNT ALQDS GSB53E56 PRESFR CONS LTGICCCCG OHD TS OHD MOV SE P0046 T02220206

Safety First

Airfield operations cease during thunderstorms precisely because of the threat lightning poses to airfield personnel and equipment. Workers who are normally unprotected come inside to ensure no one is struck by lightning. Other operations, like aircraft fueling, are also halted, as lightning and jet fuel do not mix well.

Because it is a relatively common occurrence, aircraft are designed to withstand lightning strikes, so one of the safest places to be during a storm is inside the aircraft.

The next time you’re on a flight and circling to wait out a thunderstorm, know that it’s to keep you, and everyone who works at the airport, safe.