PARIS/RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - An Air France jet disappeared after hitting stormy weather over the Atlantic Ocean on Monday and all 228 people on board were feared dead.
France and Brazil sent military planes and ships to scour a vast area of ocean where the Airbus A330 jet may have come down during the flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. But officials said there was little chance that anyone could have survived.
“It’s a tragic accident. The chances of finding survivors are tiny,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy said at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport after meeting passengers’ relatives.
If no survivors are found, it would be the worst loss of life involving an Air France plane in the carrier’s 75-year history. An Airbus A330 has never been lost during a commercial airline flight and it is extremely unusual for an airliner to be brought down by storms.
The plane was carrying 216 passengers of 32 nationalities, including seven children and one baby, Air France said. Sixty-one were French citizens, 58 Brazilian and 26 German. Twelve crew members were also on board.
Brazil’s air force said it was investigating a report that a jetliner flown by Brazilian carrier TAM had spotted debris in the ocean in Senegal’s air space on a flight from Europe to Brazil. Brazil’s Vice-President Jose Alencar also mentioned the report, saying the TAM pilot may have seen “something on fire” in the ocean. TAM was not immediately available for comment.
The Air France jet flew into storms and heavy turbulence four hours after take-off from Rio and 15 minutes later sent an automatic message reporting electrical faults, the airline said.
There was no sign that the crew had sent a mayday message or any indication that signal-emitting emergency locaters had activated on impact as is normally the case in crashes.
The company said a lightning strike could be to blame and that several of the mechanisms on the Airbus 330-200, which has a good safety record, had malfunctioned.
“It’s too early to tell what went on and what caused this tragedy,” Isabelle Birem, Air France’s general director in Brazil, said at a news conference in Sao Paulo.
“We need to study the technical results from the black box,” she added, referring to the cockpit recorder.
Sources with access to flight data sent to the World Meteorological Organization said two Lufthansa jets passed through the same area of turbulence on Monday without incident. Aviation experts said lightning strikes on planes were common and could not alone explain a disaster.
They said the plane could have suffered an electrical failure, effectively leaving the pilots “blind” and making the plane more vulnerable in an area notorious for harsh weather.
Senior French minister Jean-Louis Borloo ruled out a hijacking.
Tearful relatives were led away by airport staff in Paris to a private area where psychologists assisted them. In Rio, relatives rushed to the international airport early in the morning seeking information about the flight.
Vazti Ester Van Sluijs, 70, said that at the last minute she had changed plans to see her 40-year-old daughter Adriana at the airport, where the plane’s number was displayed for hours as simply “delayed.”
“Just before boarding, she called me asking where I was. I only had time to tell her that she was the best daughter in the world,” she said, adding she still had hope for her survival.
One of the Brazilians on board was Pedro Luis de Orleans e Braganca, a direct descendant of Dom Pedro II, the last emperor of Brazil, a spokesman for the royal family told Reuters.
Executives from French tire company Michelin, the Brazil unit of German steelmaker ThyssenKrupp, and Brazilian mining giant Vale were also among the passengers, said company officials and family members.
Brazil’s air force, which last had contact with the plane at 0133 GMT when it was 565 km (350 miles) from Brazil’s coast, sent six jets and two helicopters to look for it and the Brazilian navy dispatched three ships to help in the search.
The navy said the ships would not arrive at the last known position of the aircraft, 800 km (500 miles) northeast of the city of Natal, until Tuesday night, and aviation experts said it could take a long time to locate the black box.
France sent one of its air force planes from west Africa and several ships. Sarkozy said Spain was helping in the mission and Paris had asked the United States to assist in locating the crash site using U.S. satellite data.
“It seems the zone has been identified down to within 10 nautical miles,” Borloo said on France 2 state television.
Air France said the plane, which was powered with General Electric engines, had 18,870 flight hours on the clock and went into service in April 2005. It last underwent maintenance in a hangar in April this year. The pilots were also very experienced, the airline said.
The last incident with major loss of life involving an Air France plane was in July 2000 when one of its Concorde supersonic airliners crashed just after taking off from Paris, bound for New York. At least 113 people died in the disaster.
Additional reporting by Clements Guillou, Jean-Baptiste Vey, Gerard Bon, Astrid Wendlandt and Tim Hepher in Paris, Pedro Fonseca, Rodrigo Viga Gaier and Brian Ellsworth in Rio; Fernando Exman in Brasilia; Todd Benson in Sao Paulo; Editing by Kieran Murray