PARIS — An Air France passenger jet traveling from Rio de Janeiro to Paris disappeared after its electrical systems malfunctioned during a storm with heavy turbulence on Sunday evening, and officials said Monday that a search had begun for the wreckage near a small archipelago off the Brazilian coast.
The plane, an Airbus 330-200, was carrying 216 passengers and 12 crew members. The passengers were 126 men, 82 women, 7 children and an infant. There were nine cabin crew members and three pilots, the airline said.
The plane took off from Galeão Airport in Rio de Janeiro at 7:30 p.m. local time, and its last verbal communication with air traffic control was at 10:33 p.m., when the pilots said they would enter Senegalese air space in 50 minutes, according to a statement from the Aeronautica, the agency in charge of Brazilian air space.
At that time, the flight was flying normally, traveling at 520 miles per hour at 35,000 feet. About a half-hour later, the plane encountered an electrical storm with “very heavy turbulence,” an Air France spokeswoman, Brigitte Barrand, said.
The last communication from the plane was 14 minutes later — an automatically sent message informing air traffic control of an electrical-system malfunction, Air France officials said in Paris.
The chief Air France spokesman, Francois Brousse, said “it is possible” that the plane was hit by lightning, The Associated Press reported.
Brazilian officials said the plane disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean between the islands of Fernando de Noronha, the main island of an archipelago of the same name, and Ilha do Sal, one of the Cape Verde islands. It is a huge area of ocean three times the size of Europe, officials said.
The Brazilian Air Force has sent two planes to search for wreckage, centering their initial search on the island of Fernando de Noronha, an idyllic holiday destination 186 miles northeast of the coastal Brazilian city of Natal.
“We have two planes up there searching,” an air force spokesman, Col. Henry Munhoz, told O Globo television in Brazil.
All jets are built to withstand severe turbulence, especially at upper flying levels, as well as to withstand lightning strikes. Pilots are trained to try to avoid flying directly through thunderstorms, and instead try to find an opening in a storm front through which to guide their plane.
Ms. Barrand said that the pilot was very experienced, having clocked 11,000 flying hours, including 1,100 hours on Airbus 330 jets.
The head of investigation and accident prevention for Brazil’s Civil Aeronautics Agency, Douglas Ferreira Machado, told O Globo that he believed the plane must have left Brazilian waters and could have been near the coast of Africa by the time contact was lost, based on the speed it was traveling.
“It’s going to take a long time to carry out this search,” The A.P. quoted him as saying.
“It could be a long, sad story. The black box will be at the bottom of the sea.”
The plane was scheduled to arrive at Paris’s Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport at 11:10 a.m. local time. The aircraft was relatively new, having gone into service in April 2005. Its last maintenance check in the hangar took place on April 16, 2009, Air France said in a statement.
President Nicolas Sarkozy of France expressed grave concern about the missing airliner and sent his transport and environment ministers to a special crisis center set up at the airport, where relatives of passengers were gathering. The president was due to arrive at the airport later Monday afternoon.
French and Brazilian aviation authorities are expected to lead the investigation, but the United States National Transportation Safety Board may be involved if the plane had American-made engines or had any American passengers on board.
No Airbus 330-200 passenger flight has ever been involved in a fatal crash, according to the Aviation Safety Network, though the seven-person crew of a test flight died in a June 30, 1994, crash near Toulouse, France, where Airbus is based. The test was meant to simulate an engine failure at low speed with maximum angle of climb.
In October 2008, an A330 operated by Qantas on a flight from Singapore to Perth had to be diverted for an emergency landing near the Australian town of Exmouth after suddenly losing altitude. Dozens of passengers and crew members were injured.
Planes have been brought down by lightning strikes in the past, though it is rare. In 1988, a twin-engine turboprop FA-4 was struck by lightning in the skies over Germany and crashed, killing all 21 people aboard.
In 2006, a plane carrying Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, was struck by lightning and had to land, his spokeswoman said at the time.
Source: New York Times