PARIS – The last transmission was received about 4:15 a.m. Then, nothing.
Air France Flight 447 was an Airbus 330-200, a big, modern jetliner designed to ride through anything. But somewhere over the Atlantic, in the dead of night, in a vicious lightning storm, it fell out of the sky.
The plane had taken off Sunday night from Rio de Janeiro, bound for Paris. It carried 12 crew members and 216 passengers, a mix of nationalities: 61 French citizens and 58 Brazilians, but also nine Chinese, nine Italians, six Swiss, five British, five Lebanese, four Hungarians, two Americans and others from a total of 32 countries, from Estonia to Gambia to Morocco to the Philippines.
The crew made its last radio contact with a Brazilian control tower at 3:30 a.m. Paris time, about three hours after the routine takeoff from Brazil’s Galeao-Antonio Carlos Jobim International Airport, according to Pierre-Henri Gourgeon, Air France’s chief executive.
Half an hour later it encountered a severe storm, including thunder, lightning and strong turbulence. Beginning at 4:14 a.m. Paris time, the aircraft emitted a series of automatic messages via satellite indicating that its electrical system was not functioning and that it had suffered a loss of cabin pressure.
Those were the final signals from the plane.
At the time, the Airbus was about 190 miles northeast of the Brazilian city of Natal, heading along its planned flight path toward the Cape Verde islands off West Africa, a course that should have brought it to Paris at 11:15 a.m., Air France said.
That Atlantic zone falls between normal radar coverage from either Brazil or West Africa, although contact remains via radio, authorities here said. Although the plane’s position was known as of the final satellite messages, French officials and airline pilots noted that the plane could have plummeted directly into the water or flown on for hundreds of miles, making the search zone a long, broad path across the ocean between northeast Brazil and far western Africa.
Given the vastness of the ocean and the uncertainty about where the plane went down, some experts said, the crash site might never be pinpointed. But a growing number of countries, including Brazil, France and Spain, contributed ships and planes to the search for debris, and French officials reportedly asked the Obama administration whether U.S. spy satellites or listening posts might provide clues to the fate of the jetliner.
“If an airplane went down in the mid-Atlantic, it could be very difficult to find any physical wreckage,” said John Hansman, an aeronautics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The mid-oceans are one of the remotest parts of the world. It’s like going to the North Pole.”
The plane was cruising at about 500 mph, at an altitude of 35,000 feet, when it hit the line of thunderstorms in the Horse Latitudes, an area renowned for centuries both for sudden calms and for unpredictable winds.
William Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation in the United States, said airliners typically fly high enough to soar above thunderstorms or simply go around them. Modern aircraft, such as the twin-engine A330-200, are engineered to weather a lightning strike without serious damage, and such strikes are relatively common occurrences, he said.
But Henry Margusity, a senior meteorologist for AccuWeather.com, told the Associated Press that the thunderstorms towered up to 50,000 feet in the area, so it was possible the plane flew directly into the most charged part of the storm.
Air France expressed condolences to families of the passengers, acknowledging that there was little hope of finding anybody alive in what seemed likely to become the greatest disaster in the history of the French national airline.
“We can fear the worst,” said Jean-Louis Borloo, the French environment and transportation minister, who was at Paris-Charles de Gaulle International Airport on Monday directing attempts to locate the aircraft.
Borloo discounted the possibility of a terrorist attack and said that officials had tentatively concluded that the plane’s disappearance was accidental. But he also emphasized that the information available at that point made any definitive explanation impossible.