Air France jet missing over Atlantic, 228 on board


A woman looking for information about the Airfrance flight 447 that has been reported missed on its way between Rio de Janeiro and Paris, is surrounded by Brazilian journalists in Rio de Janeiro, Monday, June 01, 2009. An Air France jet carrying 228 people from Rio de Janeiro to Paris lost contact with air traffic controllers over the Atlantic Ocean, officials said Monday. Brazil began a search mission off its northeastern coast.

Ricardo Moraes/The Associated Press
Published: Monday, June 1, 2009 at 8:37 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, June 1, 2009 at 8:37 a.m.

SAO PAULO, Brazil An Air France jet carrying 228 people from Rio de Janeiro to Paris hit strong turbulence and lost contact with air traffic controllers over the Atlantic Ocean, officials said Monday. Brazil began a search mission off its northeastern coast.

Air France Flight 447, an Airbus A330, had 216 passengers and 12 crew members on board, company spokeswoman Brigitte Barrand said. The flight left Rio on Sunday at 7 p.m. local time (2200 GMT Sunday).

About four hours later, the plane sent an automatic signal indicating electrical problems while going through strong turbulence, Air France said.

The plane "crossed through a thunderous zone with strong turbulence" at 0200 GMT Monday (10 p.m. EDT Sunday). An automatic message was received at 0214 GMT (10:14 p.m. EDT Sunday) "signaling electrical circuit malfunction."

The plane disappeared about 190 miles (300 kilometers) northeast of the coastal Brazilian city of Natal, near the archipelago of Fernando de Noronha, a Brazilian air force spokesman said. The air force began a search began Monday morning near Fernando de Noronha, he added, speaking on condition of anonymity in keeping with air force policy.

The region is about 1,500 miles northeast of Rio.

Air France said the 216 passengers included one infant, seven children, 82 women and 126 men. It says the plane entered service in 2005 and last underwent maintenance April 16.

A police official on Fernando de Noronha said the weather was clear last night into this morning.

"It's going to take a long time to carry out this search," Douglas Ferreira Machado, head of investigation and accident prevention for Brazil's Civil Aeronautics Agency, or ANAC, told Globo news. "It could be a long, sad story. The black box will be at the bottom of the sea."

Air France-KLM CEO Pierre-Henri Gourgeon, at a news conference in Paris, said the pilot had 11,000 hours of flying experience, including 1,700 hours flying this aircraft. No name was released.

Aviation experts said it was clear the plane was not in the air any longer, due to the amount of fuel it would have been carrying.

"The conclusion to be drawn is that something catastrophic happened on board that has caused this airplane to ditch in a controlled or an uncontrolled fashion," Jane's Aviation analyst Chris Yates told The Associated Press.

"I would suggest that potentially it went down very quickly and so quickly that the pilot on board didn't have a chance to make that emergency call," Yates said, adding that the possibilities ranged from mechanical failure to terrorism.

Barrand said the airline set up an information center at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport for the families of those on board. That center said 60 French citizens were on the plane. Italy said at least three passengers were Italian.

"Air France shares the emotion and worry of the families concerned," she said.

The flight was supposed to arrive in Paris at 0915 GMT (5:15 a.m. EDT), according to the airport.

France's minister in charge of transport, Jean-Louis Borloo, said there was a "real pessimism at this hour" about the fate of the aircraft.

"We can fear the worst," he said on Europe-1 radio.

Airbus declined to comment until more details emerge.

The Airbus A330-200 is a twin-engine, long-haul, medium-capacity passenger jet, and is 58.8 meters (190 feet) long, according to Airbus. It is a shortened version of the standard A330, and can hold up to 253 passengers. It first went into service in 1998, there are 341 in use worldwide today. It can fly up to 7,760 miles (12,500 kilometers).

French President Nicolas Sarkozy expressed his "extreme worry" and sent ministers to Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport to monitor the situation.

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