I am a senior in high school and I am writing a research paper on solar flares and their effects on airline pilots. I know that the radiation can strongly affect pilots but I don't know how and its very hard to find information about it.
Solar flares produce electromagnetic radiation that reaches the Earth 8 minutes after it is produced. There is radiation over the whole light spectrum, but we are mostly concerned about X-rays and Gamma-rays since they are the most energetic. You also have to know that solar flares are often associated with coronal mass ejections (CME). CMEs result in the ejection of highly energetic protons, electrons and ions.
All of these can cause some trouble for airline pilots. In space, the effect of these particles and radiation could be very harmful, but fortunately airline pilots have a great natural protection: the Earth's magnetic field and atmosphere. The magnetic field protects the Earth from most of the charged particles. But there is a 'hole' in the magnetic field: the lines of the magnetic field go from one pole to the other, therefore charged particles can enter Earth's atmosphere at the poles. So if the pilot flies nearby the pole, he will get struck by more of these charged particles.
These charged particles, if they hit the electric systems of the plane can cause disruptions. This is because electric systems are very small, they are almost build one atom at the time, everything has to be at the right place for them to work. But if a high energy proton for example hits one of these circuits, it can cause the displacement of some atoms, and therefore the malfunctioning of the electric system.
But you also have to keep in mind that the atmosphere also blocks most of the charged particles, so the higher the plane is flying, the stronger will be the effects.
There are also health issues with that. Recent findings show that there is an increased cancer incidence among airline pilots and cabin crew (mostly skin cancer). But they haven't been able to relate that for sure to cosmic radiation, even though airline pilots and crew have been identified as 'radiation workers'. There are regulations about how much radiation somebody can be exposed to, and for 'radiation workers', this limit is set to about 20-50 times that of the normal public. It is believed that pilots flying at high altitude near the poles receive less than half of this maximal radiation however.
This page was last updated June 28, 2015.