Nervous flyer Ben Taylor was on one of the Air New Zealand planes hit by lightning on Sunday. This is his story.
As a somewhat nervous flyer, getting struck by lightning midair is not part of my plan. In fact, part of my pre-flight routine is to check the weather forecast to see what's ahead. The forecast as we boarded NZ605 in Wellington on Sunday was not promising: "Queenstown, rain turning to showers by evening with possible thunderstorms later and strong gusty westerlies." But, at least the thunderstorms were late in the day, well after our lunchtime flight, and the winds we were likely to encounter would not be gale force.
Then I received a last text message from my mother, who was at our destination: "The weather has deteriorated markedly here." Great. Thanks, mum. I did not update my wife, who is an even more nervous flyer than me.
The first leg was a bit bumpy but things deteriorated as we began our descent into the cloud, popping in and out of the murk and getting a constant buffering. For distraction, we were watching a movie with headphones at full volume to drown out some of the creaking and rattling produced as the plane was being thrown around.
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As a Wanaka local, I know the different approaches to Queenstown Airport well and am always looking forward to spotting the hills to see where we are and make sense of the twists and turns of our flight path. So I was looking outside when there was a massive flash of white purplish light with an almighty metallic boom, like the sound of a car bonnet being hit by a sledgehammer, directly above our heads. The whole plane jolted. There was also a strange acrid smell like burnt plastic — but this may also have been the smell of fear, which was pervasive throughout the cabin. Thoughts of free-falling into the abyss presented themselves but the plane carried on its jerky downward path as I got an expletive-laden update from my wife on her mental state and how she was finding the flight while gripping on hard to my arm.
A very relaxed and chirpy flight attendant confirmed that we had indeed been hit by lightning, that there was no apparent damage, this was a common occurrence, she assured us, something the plane was designed to handle and that the pilots were trained for. Also, we were going to attempt a landing although there was a chance we may not get in and have to come around. So reassuring.
There was only one thought in my head: "Get this thing on the ground!" The snowy peaks surrounding Queenstown could now be seen through the window. Then, after another strong bout of turbulence, the engines roared and we peeled out of the basin and climbed sharply into the relatively clear and calm sky with the news that the plane was being diverted to Christchurch so that the engineers could give it a once-over.
Half an hour of being on a plane which needs some engineering work was more than enough for me and, with great relief, we landed in sunny Christchurch.
A couple of hours later, in a new plane with passengers, who were brave enough to continue, coalesced from three diverted Queenstown-bound flights, we anxiously set off south, back into the looming storm, only slightly reassured by the truism that lightning doesn't strike the same place twice.
However, after a quick and less disturbed flight, we arrived safely into a dark and still-stormy Queenstown where the flight crew, who had done a great job, received applause and much thanks for getting us in. We left the plane with the spring in our step that you get from endorphins and relief at being on solid ground again after your plane gets hit by lightning.