A lightning strike that injured an air traffic controller at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport has exposed a potential vulnerability at air traffic control towers during storms. It has prompted Federal Aviation Administration officials to inspect hundreds of towers nationwide, according to The Associated Press. The FAA said in a statement that the accident was “the first of its kind in FAA history,” and the agency plans on “assessing the condition” of lightning protection systems at the 440 air traffic control towers it is responsible for across the country. In particular, the agency said it will examine lightning protection at more than 200 towers that were built prior to 1978, when the FAA first issued standards for the protection systems.
Towers are built with lightning rods and wiring to direct the electrical current from a strike harmlessly into the ground. The system in place at BWI’s airport tower failed last Sept. 12 during a thunderstorm, possibly because of faulty renovations in 1983. Air traffic controller Edward Boyd was injured when he received a shock, believed to be from a lightning strike to the tower. He was initially hospitalized and will require surgery for nerve damage. Controllers stopped all arrivals and departures for more than two hours because of concerns about the tower’s safety. The FAA told the AP it has approved $400,000 to address the tower’s lightning protection systems. Preliminary work started there this week. Planning for inspections of the towers has begun. FAA spokesperson Lynn Lunsford said assessments of older towers and towers at airports where there is a lot of construction will likely take priority. Once the assessments are completed, the agency may need to request additional money to do repairs.