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LIGHTNING STRIKE ON A LONG-EZ
From CP53, Page 9 (October, 1987)

     "I deliberated for a long time whether to publish this account of poor judgment and foolish mistakes. When I read it now, on the ground, three months later, the faulty reasoning is easy to see. But I assure you, that the decisions and events on May 23rd were made to the best of my ability and skills. My hope is that someone will benefit from my errors. It is a fine line between being around to tell a story and not being around.
     This account was originally sent to RAF for their comments. Burt passed it on to Andy Plumper of Lightning Technologies who is reputed to be the foremost lightning expert. Mr. Plumer's comments follows my tale......
     I departed New Orleans Lakefront Airport IFR to El Paso at approximately 9:30 a.m. local on Sunday, May 23rd. had received a thorough weather briefing from Flight Service only 20 minutes earlier and they indicated that westbound I shouldn't have much problems; rain showers and multiple cloud layers with tops at 14,000' to 16,000' MSL with a thin cirrus layer at 25,000'. Live Radar @ FSS painted a line of thunderstorms about 20 miles south but it probably wouldn't arrive at Lakefront for at least an hour. I was cleared to 16,000' and had gone through multiple layers of cloud and picked up some light clear ice after a climb through 12,000'. requested from ATC to hold at 14,(100' for a while since I was between layers and the next ceiling didn't look as thin as advertised. The OAT at 14,000' was +1' C. flew through some heavy rain and more ice accumulated on the plane, especially the canard, elevators and vortilons. The wing did not appear to have much ice on it and I could not see any on the winglets or the intersection between the wing and winglets. Indicated airspeed at 2400 RPM was 122 KIAS. The ice on the canard covered about 20-25% of the chord with some "streamers" that went back to perhaps the 50% chord line. Ice formed below the trailing edge of the elevator about 1/8" thick with a uniform span-wise distribution. The ice on the canard was definitely clear ice but what was below the trailing edge of the elevator looked more like mixed or rime ice.  The elevator position was about 5/16"-3/8" T.E. down. The airplane was very controllable with good elevator responsiveness. I could have easily climbed if I had wanted to so I was not overly concerned.
     ATC was giving me radar vectors to stay clear of any CB's but indicated that contrary to my preflight weather briefing, the "weather west of New Orleans is really wicked with the big boys having trouble going through!" Center advised that the only way they felt would be O.K. would be to deviate approximately 60 nm due North - obviously I followed their recommendation. After a few minutes I was again in cloud and it became increasingly difficult to hear radio transmissions - static was all that came through the headset.
     I started receiving small electrical shocks from the roll trim lever through my jeans and shocks from the microphone to my lips. I became aware of the transparent blue glow that was on the nose and canard. I say blue but somehow it seemed blue with a pink tinge.  The color was similar to the bright blue from a gas welders flame. This halo was about one chord width above the canard and seemed to "move" - it is very difficult to describe in words. I was now getting shocked through the speed brake handle and from the rudder pedals to my ankles (my feet were in the relaxed position forward of the pedals). The B&D tachometer was bouncing erratically from 500 RPM to full scale and both Nav CDI displays were swinging from stop to stop. The electric engine instruments were also useless - I didn't notice what the wet compass was doing. Here I was: IFR conditions, icing, no communication or navigation, thunderstorms and weird light. So far the ride was smooth with no rain or hail in the cloud - the cloud was not a dark, heavy one. The blue (pink) glow increased in intensity and its movement was more rapid. I am not sure but I believe that the blue glow was now inside the cockpit between my face and the instrument panel, but I could still easily read the gages; it was right out of the Twilight Zone.
     I saw a bright flash way ahead of me that seemed to go from left to right that really lit up the cloud I was in; I assumed that it was cloud to cloud lightning and that I was definitely in deep grease! The com was still all static and calls to center were unanswered (or perhaps unheard). I was so scared that I was sure that this would be the way it would all end and Kay (my wife) would be really pissed! I smelled a thick sweet odor, got one good shock from the microphone and then there was a tremendous flash of light and an incredibly loud "crack" - I felt it in my bones and chest as opposed to hearing it.
     I had been looking out at the right wing trying to figure out why the blue halo was not on the wings, only the canard, when the flash occurred. I was temporarily blinded so I removed my hand from the stick hoping I wouldn't enter a spiral dive. When I could see again (10-15 seconds), to my amazement 1) I was still alive and 2) the plane was still level at 14,000" on my last assigned heading of 060'. The blue halo was gone and I heard a transmission on the com for a Delta jet. I called center to see if my radio was blown and they immediately answered my call!  Apparently they had been trying to reach me to give me a new vector and immediately turned me to 330'. The airplane was again between layers and the visibility was good, I could even see patches of ground below. Everything appeared to be working O.K. but the plane still had a lot of ice on it and I didn't think I was in any mental state to fly an approach. The airspeed now read less than 50 knots so 1 knew that the pitot tube had iced over. The weather seemed to be improving rapidly with a broken layer above and below with some beautiful blue sky far in the distance. Since the plane would easily climb with full power and the remaining aft stick I saw no reason to descend and kill myself making a lousy IFR approach after all of this! I then saw several dark patches on the wing and winglet leading edges that upon later inspection were areas where only the glass skin remained. In about 20 minutes all of the ice melted and the elevator position returned to 1/16" T.E. up and the airspeed increased to 140 KIAS at the same power setting of 2400 RPM. The flight continued normally in IFR conditions and I landed at El Paso International four hours later.
     So what is there to learn from this unwanted experience? Probably several things. First, that the invincibility the I felt in 8888EZ contributed to my cavalier attitude in flying in bad weather - this certainly was not "California IFR' that I was used to. After nearly 1100 hours of flying in a plastic cocoon, I had developed a false sense of immortality - after all, the EZ had gotten me through some tough situations before. Also, I learned to never, ever trust ATC and/or FSS - the pilot must make his own decisions and evaluations on when to commence or terminate a flight.
     Another significant revelation is that although the Long-EZ is a great plane and can leap tall buildings with a single bound, it is not suited for hard IFR flights with embedded thunderstorms. I consider myself extremely lucky to have survived this flight - my skill and judgment (or more correctly lack of both) hopefully will serve me better in the future."

Dick Kreidel.      (Mr. Plumer's response follows)


Subject:  Long-EZ Lightning Strike               22 July, 1987

References:  Your Letter of 3 June, 1986, Same Subject, with Dick Kriedel's Letter Attached.

Burt Rutan
Scaled Composites, Inc.
Hangar 78,
Mojave Airport
Mojave, CA 93501

Dear Burt:

I have studied the interesting account of a lightning strike to a Long-EZ by pilot Dick Kreidel, accompanying your letter of 3 June, and have the following comments:
    1. After beginning the deviation North, the aircraft entered an electrically charged region, as indicated by the static in the communications system, "small electrical shocks" and "blue glow" (Corona) on aircraft extremities. The electric shocks were due to electric field penetration of the non-conductive fiberglass air frame. The erratic behavior of the instruments was also due to electric field interaction with the inter-connecting wiring. It is very likely that the Corona was indeed occurring inside the cockpit as Mr. Kreidel suspected.
    2. The synoptic weather conditions reported by the pilot are very characteristic of those reported by other operators when lightning strikes have occurred (~14,000 feet; icing, precipitation, within a cloud, outside air temperature plus or minus five degrees of freezing). Apparently the aircraft was near embedded thunderstorms cells, though lightning strikes have been known to originate in "layered" clouds as well as CB clouds.
    3. The "flash of light" and "loud crack" indicate the lightning strike, although evidently one of mild intensity, is indicated by the comparatively minor effects on the aircraft. At 14,000 feet it is likely that the aircraft encountered a branch of a flash, rather than the main channel of a cloud to earth flash; as illustrated in the following sketch.
wpe1E.gif (6175 bytes)Click to enlarge
    4. The electric currents in a branch (of which there are a lot in a typical flash structure) are usually much less than that in the main channel. Even so, the flash and noise can be frightening if experienced close at hand.
    5. Apparently the lightning current entered one wing tip (take your pick) and exited from the other, being conducted by internal metal conductors between. The amount of damage to the fiberglass and foam structures indicates a very mild strike, perhaps 5 kiloamperes or less (part 23 rules require an air frame to tolerate 200 kiloamperes).

Comments.

    1. Pilot Kreidel was lucky. A more severe strike may well have caused major structural damage and lethal voltage differences among metal objects in the cockpit (column, petals, headphones, etc.) as well as severe damage to internal electrical conductors such as control cables, hinges, bearings, rods, electrical wiring. These voltages and currents can be far in excess of fatal levels. Electric fields and lightning strikes themselves will directly penetrate unprotected fiberglass structures, attracted by metal objects within - no matter how small.
    2. This is another example of the fact that ATC cannot be relied upon to vector an aircraft safely around - and clear of - hazardous thunderstorms. Controllers are not provided with sufficient (and timely) information for this purpose. Even though avoiding areas of heavy precipitation the aircraft ran into an electrically active region.
    3. This incident is not a good example of what would occur to a Long-EZ in a lightning strike. A "full threat" stroke would likely have ripped a hole a foot or more in diameter through the composite and vaporized small diameter control cables and inter-connecting wiring. The accompanying shock waves would have caused extensive internal damage, delamination, etc.. I doubt very much whether the aircraft or pilot could have survived such a strike.

Recommendation:

    1. Continue to warn pilots of this class of aircraft to stay VFR and avoid weather clouds, precipitation, and icing within five degrees of the freezing level should be especially avoided.2. This Long-EZ should be thoroughly inspected to be sure that there has not been damage to any internal metal parts. All internal part should be
     inspected. It is quite probable, for example that the strike burned some strands of control cables, electrical wires, etc..
    Thank you for sharing this interesting account with me. Please give me a call if you have any further questions.

Yours truly,

J.A. Plumer, President
Lightning Technologies, Inc.