Earlier this year, a direct lightning strike forced the pilots of a private jet carrying French president Françoise Hollande to make an emergency landing in Paris. Though the jet, upon inspection, was only minimally damaged, the risk was serious: Lightning can melt a hole through a plane’s wing or short-circuit its electronics. Aircraft designers prepare for strikes with the help of companies like National Technical Systems (NTS).
At its Pittsfield, Massachusetts, facility, NTS researchers pit wing sections, other aviation components, and scale-model aircraft against artificial lightning. When a researcher activates a Marx generator, a bolt of electricity jumps the gap between an electrode and the test object. The bolt passes through the object and terminates on an aluminum plate. The results are dramatic. “We’ve had hinges weld. We’ve had panels and structures punctured through, and engineers have had to rework a design,” says NTS general manager Mike Dargi. “Plenty of times, our customers have to go back to the drawing board.”