In Just Six Hours, Four Planes Were Struck By Lightning Over Honolulu


For hundreds of Hawaii residents and visitors, the Thanksgiving holiday ended with a bang — from a lightning strike.

A little after noon on Sunday, Hawaiian Airlines Flight 19 was struck by lightning about 12 miles southwest of Honolulu International Airport as it was arriving from Sacramento.

Four hours later, Hawaiian Airlines Flight 1121 was also hit as it was en route from Hilo to Honolulu.

Hawaiian Airlines Flight 278 took a blow at 5 p.m. while it was flying from Honolulu to Kona. And less than an hour later, Flight 236 was hit as it shuttled passengers from Honolulu to Maui.

Four lightning strikes in a span of six hours is highly unusual, according to aviation experts. And while pilots are trained to avoid storm clouds, the heavy cloud cover and pounding rains on Sunday may have given them little choice but to punch through the turbulence.

“It gives you an indication that there must have been lots of rain that the planes were flying through and an environment for static issues,” said Peter Forman, a local aviation historian.

Airplanes can actually create lightning as they travel through clouds. The airplanes were “probably picking up static faster than they could get rid of it,” he said.

There were no injuries from the strikes and only two planes suffered minor damage, said Huy Vo, a spokesman for Hawaiian Airlines.

While airline officials did not respond to an interview request, Vo said by email that all its planes have safety features in the event of a lightning strike. “All or our aircraft are FAA certified to ensure that lightning does not affect the structure or avionics of our aircraft,” he said.

Vo said the cluster of strikes was unusual.

Only the first incident was reported to the Federal Aviation Administration and none of the four incidents were reported to Hawaii’s Department of Transportation.

It’s up to the discretion of pilots to report such incidents to the FAA, said Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the agency. (He said that he didn’t think the FAA keeps records of aircraft lightning strikes.) Hawaiian Airlines also isn’t required to report such cases to the state transportation department, which has oversight of the state’s airports, said Vo.

Caroline Sluyter, a DOT spokeswoman, said that if it was a serious incident DOT would probably be kept informed.

“If it happened near the airport or affected a flight, such as if a flight had to return to a Hawaii airport due to a lightning strike, then we we would most likely know about it,” she said.

But while federal and state officials were unaware Sunday of the unusual spike in lightning hitting airplanes, passengers stuck for hours at island airports were aware that something had happened, even if they didn’t know what.

Two of the 717 aircraft were pulled from the airlines’ lineup to undergo maintenance causing a cascade of delays throughout the islands’ airports for much of the day. Hundreds of island residents and tourists returning home for the holiday lay sprawled out on couches and chairs, some nodding off as delays stretched as long as four hours, some lasting past midnight.