basketball sized glowing sphere of rotating light formed
on the airplane's cockpit control panel...(Artist's
conception - Copyright Lee Krystek, 2010)
I write a lot about people who have encounters with
anomalous things. This means searching for information on the
internet, multiple trips to various libraries, digging up old
newspapers and contacting people by email or phone. Rarely do
I just stumble across someone in my everyday life that has had
an anomalous incident, so I was surprised when somebody I work
with told me they encountered a rare electrical phenomenon called
Reports of ball lightning have been around for hundreds
of years. In 1638 an exceptionally powerful thunderstorm struck
the town of Widecombe-in-the-Moor, Devon, in England. Church services
were going on when an eight-foot wide ball of fire smashed into
the stone building doing heavy damage. The ball divided into two,
one part exited by destroying a window and the other disappeared
somewhere in the church. Records say that four people died and
approximately 60 more were injured. This was a disaster of huge
proportions for this tiny community that was blamed on Satanic
On the evening of October 8th, 1919, a "ball of
fire as large as a washtub floating low in the air" hit the side
of a building in Salina, Kansas, tearing away bricks and destroying
a window. It then exploded into smaller globes about the size
of baseballs. According to a newspaper account, "Some of these
balls followed trolley and electric-light wires in a snaky sort
of manner and some simply floated off through the air…" The paper
also added that an electric switch box across the street was torn
open and the transformer inside destroyed, leading to a blackout
for half of the town.
A woodcut of
the incident at Widecombe-in-the-Moor in 1638. Ball lightning
nearly destoyed a stone church.
Not all incidents involving ball lightning have
ended so violently. In 1960 Louise Matthews was lying on her living
room couch in her South Philadelphia home when a huge glowing
red ball entered the room through a window, though both the sash
and the blinds were closed. It then floated by the living room
and dining room making a sizzling sound. It apparently then exited
the building through a closed dining room window. No damage to
either the windows or the house was reported, though Ms. Matthews
did report at the time feeling a tingling at the back of her neck.
She later found that all the hairs in that area on the back of
her head had fallen out.
Knowing some of these stories I was very excited
to learn that one of the police sergeants at the college where
I work (and occasionally teach) had a personal encounter with
ball lightning. He agreed to tell me his story as long as I kept
his name confidential. The Sergeant's concern for privacy is probably
not unjustified. For many years reports of ball lightning were
mostly associated with hoaxsters, liars and crackpots. Only recently
have people begun to see reports of ball lightning as examples
of a real scientific phenomenon.
Sgt. Smith's (not his real name) story starts in
July of 2007 when he was the third person flying along with the
pilot and co-pilot on a KC-135 tanker out of McGuire AFB in New
Jersey. In addition being a member of the police department, Sgt.
Smith was, and is, a Master Sergeant in the reserves. They had
spent that day in a training flight dodging around thunderstorms
in the area. The jet was at an elevation of about 2,000 feet and
the time was 2 PM. The crew was just about to call it quits for
the day when the incident started.
"As we were coming down to make a landing we were
struck by lightning," he said. "I heard a loud bang, saw a flash
and then saw this globe. It came off of the instrument panel.
Kind of rotating into a ball." The sergeant described the globe
as being about the size of a basketball glowing yellow with bluish
and pink tones. According to his account it rolled off the instrument
panel, fell to the floor and went skittering down the back of
the plane, a distance of eighty feet or so, till it disappeared.
Smith noted that it seemed to grow smaller as it moved to the
back of the aircraft, but he couldn't be sure if this was an effect
of the distance or if the globe's energy was being dissipated
into the floor of the aircraft somehow.
KC-135 Stratotanker similar to one Sgt. Smith was flying
in during the day of the incident.
The Sergeant indicated that the entire incident
lasted between seven and eight seconds. Beyond the initial bang
of the lightning strike he doesn't remember a sound associated
with the glowing ball or experiencing the tingly feeling one sometimes
gets around heavy static electric charges.
Smith reported that for a moment the whole crew
froze in surprise, and then the pilots started to go through the
procedures necessary after a lightning strike. The plane landed
in a few minutes without further incident and no apparent damage.
When Smith was asked what his initial reaction was
to the incident, he said he was thinking, "Wow. What just happened?
Although Sgt. Smith wasn't aware of what he was
seeing at the time, he had heard of air crews who had experienced
similar events on other planes.
In fact, one of the most publicized incidents involving
ball lightning took place in a Russian passenger liner in 1984.
The crew saw a glowing ball of light four inches in diameter in
front of the plane. It disappeared with a bang, and then reappeared
in a few seconds in the passenger cabin. The ball then drifted
through the passenger cabin to the rear of the plane where it
divided into two crescents. The crescents then merged again and
disappeared from the aircraft. When the plane was examined later,
a hole was found in the front of the fuselage and another at the
One of the reasons that scientists have been so
skeptical about the existence of ball lightning over the years
is that while on the surface the reports seem very similar, variations
in the reported behavior make it very hard to come up with a scientific
explanation for the cause. Sometimes the balls last for seconds,
sometimes for minutes. Sometimes the globes quietly disappear;
sometimes they explode with a bang. "These may seem like trivial
distinctions," notes science writer Gordon Stein, "but they cause
theorists no end of difficulties. Explanations that will work
for a ball one second's duration, for example, cannot account
for a 10-second ball."
depiction of ball lightning from the 19th century.
Some critics have suggested that the phenomenon
is only an illusion - an after image - created in the eyes of
the observers by the brightness of the bolt of regular lightning.
I asked Sergeant Smith about this, but he replied that this was
not what happened in this case. "We weren't seeing spots in our
eyes," he said firmly.
Others have argued that ball lightning is simply
a misidentification of St. Elmo's fire. St. Elmo's fire is a well-known
phenomenon that appears during thunderstorms in which luminous
plasma forms around grounded objects like flagpoles, ship masts
and church steeples. It's bright blue or violet, but doesn't form
balls or roll across surfaces. Smith was familiar with this effect
and had observed it in the past. What he saw, he testified, was
definitely not St. Elmo's fire.
Recently two Brazilian scientists, Antonio Pavão
and Gerson Paiva of the Federal University of Pernambuco have
reported some success in creating something that seems to look
and act like ball lightning. They think that regular lightning
strikes vaporize the silica in the soil, turning it into silicon
vapor. As it cools, the silicon condenses into a floating aerosol,
which is pulled into a sphere by its charge. The glowing is due
to the heat of silicon recombining with oxygen.
Experiments in their laboratory involved shocking
silicon wafers with electricity, which vaporizes them and creates
oxidation in the vapors. The result is small glowing balls which
skitter around a surface. I obtained a video of these experiments
and showed them to Sgt. Smith who said the movement was very similar
to what he remembered seeing in the aircraft.
Where would silicon be on an aircraft panel? Well,
the electronics certainly contain silicon as it is a primary component
in most computer chips. However, it is hard to believe much of
this could be vaporized without affecting the operation of the
plane. More likely, if this indeed was the cause, some of the
rubber-like gaskets and materials on the panel might actually
contain silicon, and perhaps some of this evaporated to cause
video of something similar to ball lightning being made
in a Brazilian laboratory shown to Sgt. Smith.
So is the mystery of ball lightning solved? Maybe
not. The oxidizing silicon vapor might explain incidents like
Sgt. Smith's but does it explain some of the more violent incidents
sometimes reported? Is there more than one explanation for this
In any case, when queried about how he felt about
his encounter, the Sergeant replied, "It was an awesome experience.
I wasn't freaked out about it or anything."
I can't say that I'd be that calm after such an
encounter, epecially after reading about the exploding church