Saturday, May 30, 2015

Lightning From Uncomfortably Close

The time is September, specifically the weekend after Labor Day.  The year is 1976.  I had been a ham since February of '76, and had a few friends who were introducing me to lots of typical ham activities.  I lived in Ft. Lauderdale at the time, working in my first job as an electronics technician.  Some of these friends suggested a "road trip" up to Melbourne, for the annual Melbourne Hamfest as my first introduction.  It's about 150 miles between the cities, and in those days, Interstate 95 didn't go through.  It was interrupted in places and the trip took more like 3 1/2 or 4 hours than today's 2 1/2 hours.  Instead of spending the night, we were on the road early and heading back late in the afternoon.

I remember this so clearly because on the drive back, while crossing between back roads and where we could pick up I-95 again, I came the closest I have ever been to a lightning strike.  Even now, 39 years later, it is vividly clear in my mind.  Florida is the lightning capital of the US and Central Florida is the most active place in the state.  According to the National Weather Service, the number of annual thunderstorm days in the central Florida area are:
  • East coast (Melbourne/Vero Beach) = 70-80
  • Interior (Orlando) = 80-90
  • West coast (Lakeland) = 90-100
As you can see from those statistics, thunderstorms are common here, especially on summer afternoons like that.  I was in the right rear seat looking out the window at the guard rails, bolted as they are to concrete posts alongside the roadway.  It was not raining extremely hard; the lightning tends not to be in the densest rain. 

Suddenly a blinding flash of light and a concrete post was hit.  It couldn't have been more than a car length ahead or so, so no more than 30 feet from where I was sitting.  The bolt looked enormous - several feet across - and painfully bright.  Then just as suddenly as it flashed on, it flashed off.  In the bolt's place in the air were what I've always thought to be little balls of glowing air.  Ionized?  Actually burning?  I have no idea.  This was definitely one of those "time freezes" moments and it felt like several seconds with the balls drifting slowly in no particular directions.   Then, BANG, the second stroke occurred, painfully bright and feet wide again.  After it flashed off, I don't recall the glowing balls of air.  During this whole event, the car was still moving, so by the time the second strike occurred, it was no more than five feet from where I was sitting. 

For the last 39 years, that has been a vivid memory.  I have never been that close again, and never seen the phenomenon of the glowing balls of air again.  Until today.  A friend sent me this 10 second video taken by the dashcam in a police car.  The strike occurs around the 6 to 7 second mark and for perhaps two seconds, glowing balls of air are visible, quickly self-extinguishing.   This frame grab shows the density of the glowing air near its peak, and they're only visible against the much darker cloud.  One or two long-lasting balls can be seen on the right, near the ground level right up to the end of the video.  
This is the closest thing to what I saw that day that I've come across in these 39 years.  It's farther away, for sure, but the contrast of how bright the lightning looks to the rest of the day looks just about right. 

That day I was as close to a strike as I've ever been, and I really don't want to get any closer.  Anyone who isn't a little bit afraid of lightning doesn't understand the problem.


  1. The closest I've been to a direct hit was about 40 feet. I was standing on the back porch of the house I grew up in back in Illinois, when the powerpole at the NW corner of our lot took a direct hit.

    It turned a standard telephone pole into toothpicks!

    To this day, it's the loudest, brightest thing I've ever seen. I think I actually felt it more than heard it.

    The ozone smell was very strong for a few minutes, along with the smell from the vaporized telephone pole.

    The power went down in the whole neighborhood, and stayed down until ComEd could get out the next morning and repair/replace everything that just "wasn't there" anymore.

  2. A little off subject but one of the coolest things I've seen: In 1964 I was in AF tech school in Biloxi Ms during one of those big hurricanes. The base was literally closed down and all the troops were supposed to stay in the barracks until the danger was go. But as luck would have it the eye came over us at lunch time so what's a growing young man supposed to do? On the way back from lunch the eye wall passed through and the wind and rain was horrific. Walking against the wind I saw the power lines acrose the street swingning wildly and touch briefly. A big bang and a ball of blue light which fell to the ground and buzzed like a 4th of July fireworks. It literally bounced around for 5 seconds or so before it puttered out. Too cool.

  3. Was at a friends house when lightning struck the roof mounted CB antenna - fried the cable through two floors, blew off chunks of plaster, scorched the wood floor where the base unit sat.

    THE SAME THING HAPPENED NEXT YEAR - same house, would not have believed it had I not been there, again.

    Another house - in some summer electrical storms the TV tube would glow, when turned off & unplugged from the wall, same with a fluorescent tube desk lamp. Multiple occasions.

    But that wasn't near bizarre as - a glowing band of light about chest level would appear from one end of hallway, make two turns to the outside door, a distance of 25-30 feet. Had been observed over many years by many people - no idea what caused it or what it was - corona discharge?

  4. I too have seen the glowing balls of air in the aftermath of a strike. It was in 1981 in the DFW area. I was watching a storm over Fort Worth/Grand Prairie from a hilltop. After the strike I thought it would be a good idea to get back inside.

    The closest strike I've ever experienced was when a car I was in took a hit. It was a very memorable event.

    I also saw a ball lightning event from a relative's farm in Corsicana, Texas.