SAO PAULO — A missing Air France jet carrying 228 people from Rio de Janeiro to Paris ran into a tower of thunderstorms and heavy turbulence over the Atlantic Ocean, officials said Monday, fearing that all aboard were lost.
The area where the plane could have gone down was vast. Brazil’s military searched for the plane off its northeast coast, while the French military scoured the Atlantic off the West African coast near the Cape Verde Islands.
Chief Air France spokesman Francois Brousse said “it is possible” the plane was hit by lightning, but aviation experts expressed doubt that a bolt of lightning was enough to bring the plane down.
Air France Flight 447, a 4-year-old Airbus A330, left Rio on Sunday at 7:30 p.m. local time (2230 GMT, 6:30 p.m. EDT) with 216 passengers and 12 crew members on board, said company spokeswoman Brigitte Barrand.
The plane left Brazil radar contact, past the Fernando de Noronha archipelago, about three hours later (10:48 Brazil time, 0148 GMT, 9:48 p.m. EDT), indicating it was flying normally at 35,000 feet (10,670 meters) and traveling at 522 mph (840 kph).
About a half-hour after that, 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) and an automatic message was received fourteen minutes later reporting electrical failure and a loss of cabin pressure.
That was the last communication sent from the plane, when it was about 60 miles (100 kilometers) south of the Cape Verde Islands, according to the Brazilian Air Force.
Meteorologists said tropical storms are much more violent than thunderstorms in the United States and elsewhere.
“Tropical thunderstorms … can tower up to 50,000 feet (15,240 meters). At the altitude it was flying, it’s possible that the Air France plane flew directly into the most charged part of the storm — the top,” Henry Margusity, senior meteorologist for AccuWeather.com, said in a statement.
Brazil’s air force was searching near the archipelago of Fernando de Noronha, about 180 miles (300 kilometers) northeast of the Brazilian coastal city of Natal. The region is about 1,500 miles northeast of Rio.
Portuguese air control authorities say the missing plane did not make contact with controllers in Portugal’s mid-Atlantic Azores Islands nor, as far as they know, with other Atlantic air traffic controllers in Cape Verde, Casablanca, or the Canary islands.
In Washington, a Pentagon official said he’d seen no indication that terrorism or foul play was involved. He spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the subject.
Sobbing relatives of people aboard the plane arrived at an airport in Sao Paulo to fly onto Rio de Janeiro, where Air France was assisting relatives. Andres Fernandes, his eyes tearing up, said a relative “was supposed to be on the flight, but we need to confirm it,” Globo TV reported.
At the Charles de Gaulle airport north of Paris, family members who had arrived to meet passengers refused to speak to reporters and were brought to a cordoned-off crisis center.
Air France said it expressed “its sincere condolences to the families and loved ones of the passengers and crew members” aboard Flight 447. The airline did not explicitly say there were no survivors, but no sign of the plane had turned up more than 12 hours after it disappeared.
Air France-KLM CEO Pierre-Henri Gourgeon, at a news conference, said the plane’s pilot had 11,000 hours of flying experience, including 1,700 hours flying this aircraft.
“We are without doubt facing an air catastrophe,” Gourgeon said.
Aviation experts said the risk the plane was brought down by lightning was slim.
“Lightning issues have been considered since the beginning of aviation. They were far more prevalent when aircraft operated at low altitudes. They are less common now since it’s easier to avoid thunderstorms,” said Bill Voss, president and CEO of Flight Safety Foundation, Alexandria, Va.
He said planes have specific measures built in to help dissipate electricity along the aircraft’s skin, and are tested for resistance to big electromagnetic shocks and equipped to resist them. He said the plane should be found soon, because it has backup locators that should continue to function even in deep water.
Experts said the absence of a mayday call meant something happened very quickly.
“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. “Potentially it went down very quickly and so quickly that the pilot on board didn’t have a chance to make that emergency call.”
Air France crisis center said 60 French citizens were on the plane. Italy said at least three passengers were Italian.
If all 228 people were killed, it would be the deadliest commercial airline disaster since Nov. 12, 2001, when an American Airlines jetliner crashed in the New York City borough of Queens during a flight to the Dominican Republic, killing 265 people. On Feb. 19, 2003, 275 people were killed in the crash of an Iranian military plane carrying members of the Revolutionary Guards as it prepared to land at Kerman airport in Iran.
The worst single-plane disaster was in 1985 when a Japan Air Lines Boeing 747 crashed into a mountainside after losing part of its tail fin, killing 520 people.
Airbus would not further comment until more details emerged.
“Our thoughts are with the passengers and with the families of the passengers,” said Airbus spokeswoman Maggie Bergsma.
She said it was the first fatal accident of a A330-200 since a test flight in 1994 went wrong, killing seven people in Toulouse.
The Airbus A330-200 is a twin-engine, long-haul, medium-capacity passenger jet that is 190 feet (58.8 meters) long. It is a shortened version of the standard A330, and can hold up to 253 passengers. There are 341 in use worldwide today. It can fly up to 7,760 miles (12,500 kilometers).
Rick Kennedy, a spokesman for GE Aviation, expressed doubt that the engine was at fault. He said the CF6-80E engine that powered the Air France plane “is the most popular and reliable engine that we have for big airplanes in the world.” He said there are more than 15,000 airplanes flying in the world with that engine design.