February 22, 2015:
In late 2014 Britain surprised a lot of people when they revealed the total cost ($13.7 million) to repair the damage to their aircraft suffered during an April 2013 hailstorm in Kandahar Afghanistan. The cost was even more severe than what the Americans already reported for their helicopters there. In fact, the hail damage was more costly than all other Taliban attacks on NATO aircraft in Afghanistan since 2001. No doubt some Taliban will see this as confirming that God is on their side.
The five British RAF (Royal Air Force) C-130Js at Kandahar during the hail storm had to be flown back to Britain to complete the repairs, after four of them first spent two months being patched up so they could make the flight. The engineers doing the repairs calculated that each C-130 had been hit at least 2,000 times by hail stones large enough to leave a dent. Among the five C-130s over 850 panels (that comprise the outer skin of the aircraft) were badly damaged, in addition to dozens of flight controls elements (ailerons, antennae, and the like). These five aircraft comprised 20 percent of the British C-130 fleet and were out of action for over four months because of the hail damage. As bad as this was for the 79 ton C-130s, for smaller aircraft it was worse. An 11 ton Bae-125 business jet, used for moving VIPs around, was a total loss. A brand new 42 ton BAe 146-200 jet transport was almost as badly damaged as the C-130s.
Soon after the event it was reported that the hailstorm caused over a million dollars in damage to 80 American helicopters. The Afghans also suffered, losing three personnel killed and over $8 million in damage to eight of their aircraft. The large hail, up to 25mm (or an inch) in diameter and weighing up to 100 gr (several ounces), damaged rotors, electronics, and windows. The hail came down at over 200 kilometers an hour. Such hail storms are common in areas away from oceans and often do major damage to crops and domestic animals (as well as any people who cannot take shelter). Some hailstones weigh nearly a kilogram (2.2 pounds) and can kill people and cattle and do serious damage to aircraft and vehicles on the ground.
Such hailstorms are also one of the rare, but regular, hazards of aircraft in flight. Hail will melt as it gets closer to the ground but for an aircraft in the air and several kilometers up, the hail is “fresh” and capable of doing notable (although very rarely fatal) damage to an aircraft. Every year aircraft, especially in North America, suffer millions of dollars in damage from hail. This is because interior North America is one of the main hailstorm producing areas on the planet and also has a very high concentration of air traffic.
Hail is not the only natural hazard in the air. A more common problem is bird strikes. In rare cases these can even bring down a helicopter. For example in 2011 a U.S. Marine Corps gunship collided with a red-tailed hawk that weighed about 1.4 kg (3 pounds). The bird hit the top of the main rotor mast on a marine AH-1W helicopter gunship. The hawk impact damaged the pitch change link, which caused vibrations that quickly led to the transmission and rotor blades breaking away from the helicopter. The chopper then fell to earth, killing the two man crew. The AH-1 has since been modified to better protect the pitch change link, one of several highly vulnerable (to damage) components on a helicopter. Normally, the pitch change link would not be hit by ground fire. No one thought the risk of a bird strike up there was worth doing anything about until it happened.
Aircraft bird strikes are a widespread, if little publicized, problem. There are about 5,000 such incidents a year. These often just mean replacing windows or canopies, or whatever the bird hit. Most of the incidents involve near misses or collisions on non-critical portions of the aircraft. But in about one percent of the incidents the damage is severe and some aircraft are lost. On average, 40-50 people a year die because of aircraft bird strikes. This is far more than are lost to hail (in the air or on the ground).
Nearly all the fatal bird strikes are to aircraft with gas turbine engines (which birds fly into). This often wrecks, or severely damages, the engine when the high speed fan is damaged. Multiple engine aircraft usually can survive this if they still have one or more working engines. But sometimes single or two engine aircraft lose all engine power and go down with heavy loss. One exception was the "Miracle On The Hudson" in January 2009, when Airbus 320 over New York City lost both engines to bird strikes. Exceptional work by the crew managed to bring the aircraft down, intact, on the Hudson River. Hail caused a similar (although not as life-threatening) incident in 2006, where a B-727 jet was climbing after takeoff from Calgary (in central Canada) when it ran into a massive hail storm that did extensive (but not disabling) damage to the aircraft exterior. With most of the lights out and the cockpit windows obscured by cracks caused by numerous fast moving hail stones, the aircraft turned around and landed safely.
Lightning used to be a common hazard, causing a fatal crash every 3-4 years. Most heavily used aircraft are still hit by lightning at least once a year. But in the last three decades aircraft designers and manufacturers have made aircraft much more resistant to fatal side effects of lightning strikes and there have been few fatal accidents from lightning. Birds and hail have proved more difficult to deal with.