Did the Pilots Attempt to Fly Through a Thunderstorm Intentionally? That’s very unlikely. Pilots avoid thunderstorms at all costs, because they know a thunderstorm can destroy any aircraft. Pilots use the aircraft’s on-board weather radar system to make sure they keep a safe distance. During the day, they can see the towering thunderstorms rising up to 50,000 feet and avoid them that way as well.
Did Lightning Destroy the Aircraft? Probably not. Lightning strikes are common. On average, each airplane is the US commercial fleet is stuck by lightning once per year. To protect against strikes, airliners are designed to route the electrical charge along the aircraft’s outer skin from one end of
the aircraft, where the charge usually originates, to the other, where it leaves the aircraft harmlessly. Because the aluminum aircraft skin is a good conductor, it is fairly easy for engineers to make sure the path from one end of the aircraft to the other is unbroken, thus assuring that the aircraft will not be harmed.
The Airbus makes extensive use of composite (non-metallic) materials. This makes lightning protection more of an engineering challenge. Engineers have to take extra steps to make sure the conductive path is unbroken by, for example, embedding the composite parts with metallic mesh. The mesh maintains a conductive path along the aircraft’s exterior.
If there is a discontinuity in the conductive path, the lightning can cause a “burn-through” of the aircraft structure, which can be catastrophic. In addition, sparks can ignite fuel tanks. However, the last time an aircraft was brought down by a lightning strike was 40 years ago. So while lightning can theoretically cause catastrophic structural damage, it is unlikely.
Did Lightning Have Anything at all to do With the Loss of the Aircraft? It is possible that non-structural damage from a lightning strike could have contributed to the loss of the aircraft.
Weather Radar Antenna. A lightning strike could easily have damaged the aircraft’s weather radar antenna, located in the aircraft’s nosecone. Manufacturers contend that the antenna cannot be completely protected from lightning if it is to function properly. If the antenna is struck by lightning, it could render the radar inoperative. In the dark of night, this could make it difficult for the pilots to avoid flying into a thunderstorm, resulting in the loss of the aircraft.
Electrical System. The Airbus’ "fly-by-wire" flight controls are heavily dependent on the aircraft’s electrical system. A lightning strike can disrupt the aircraft electronics. Without assistance from the aircraft’s electrical system, an Airbus can be difficult to control – sort of like trying to drive a car without the power steering. While Airbus pilots are prepared to fly without a fully functioning electrical system, in areas of severe or extreme turbulence, it may be impossible to keep the aircraft upright. Losing control of the aircraft for even a short time can overstress the structure and cause the aircraft to break apart.
Does the Fact that there was No Distress Call Mean Whatever Happened Was Sudden? No. When faced with an emergency, pilots are on their own. There is nothing someone sitting in a cushy chair 1000 miles away can do to help. Communicating his predicament is far down the list of a pilot’s priorities, except in TV movies.