The incident involving an emergency landing of a JetKonnect flight after a lighting strike cut off its radio communication on Tuesday evening was a first for the Mumbai airport, said air traffic control (ATC) officials and senior pilots.
The impact of the lightning was so powerful that it led to radio communication failure on board the city-bound flight carrying 99 passengers from Rajkot.
“Lightning striking aircraft is quite common but I have rarely come across such an incident which leads to complete collapse of communication,” said an ATC official serving for more than 20 years.
Air safety experts said that both old and modern jets have static dischargers fixed on their wings to dissipate lighting charge.
Tuesday’s incident, they said, could have happened because the surge of electricity was extremely high. “It seems that the surge of the lightning was so powerful that the static dischargers could not handle it,” said air safety experts Vipul Saxena.
The cockpit crew had to type an emergency code 7700 on the transponder, a backup communication device, to report the mid-air emergency to the Mumbai ATC. “We knew that there was an emergency on board the aircraft but had no knowledge of the nature of the problem,” said another ATC officials.
Senior pilots added that since modern cockpits are fully computerised they are more vulnerable to turbulent weather compared to aircraft built 20 years ago.
“Fully computerised cockpits are extremely delicate. As a result, crucial controls in such cockpits easily collapse when an aircraft is hit by powerful lightning,” said a Boeing commander with a private airline on condition of anonymity as he is not authorised to speak to the media.
However, he added that since the aircraft manufacturers have a laid down procedure for such mid-air emergencies, risk to passenger safety is minimal.
“The procedure during such emergencies is very clear. Send the emergency alert, maintain altitude and follow the flight path fed in the system, assuming that the ATC will keep other aircraft away from your path,” added the pilot.