An Air France plane with 228 people on board disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean on its way from Brazil to Paris on Monday after hitting strong turbulence and French officials said they feared a disaster.
The Brazilian air force said the Airbus jet was well advanced over the sea when it went missing and military planes took off from both South America and Africa to hunt for the plane.
“We are probably facing an air catastrophe,” Air France Chief Executive Pierre-Henri Gourgeon told reporters.
Air France said the airliner sent an automatic message reporting an electrical fault at 0214 GMT, roughly 15 minutes after the plane flew through a stormy area with strong turbulence. Some reports have speculated that it may have been hit by lightning.
Flight AF 447 left Rio de Janeiro on Sunday at 7 p.m. (2200 GMT) and had been expected to land at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport on Monday at 11:15 a.m. (0915 GMT).
The carrier said 216 passengers were on board, including seven children and one baby, and 12 crew members. Air France said the pilots were highly experienced.
French Transport Minister Jean-Louis Borloo ruled out the possibility of a hijacking. “It’s an awful tragedy,” Borloo told France Info radio.
The jet’s last known location was unclear and Brazil’s Air Force said it lost contact with the plane at 0133 GMT. “It was well advanced over the Atlantic when we had the last contact,” a Brazilian air force spokesman said.
Spokesman Henry Wilson said planes had taken off from the island of Fernando de Noronha off Brazil’s northeast coast to look for the Air France jet.
Jean-Christophe Ruffin, France’s ambassador in the West African country of Senegal, told French iTele that aircraft had also taken off from there to search for the missing Airbus.
An air traffic controller at ASECNA in Dakar says they did not take control of AF 447. ASECNA — Agency for Aviation Security and Navigation in Africa and Madagascar — covers Francophone Africa.
The plane was an Airbus 330-200 powered with General Electric engines.
Air France said relatives of people travelling on board flight AF 447 were being taken care of in a special area of Charles de Gaulle airport.
The last major incident involving an Air France plane was in July 2000 when one of its Concorde supersonic airliners crashes just after taking off from Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris, bound for New York. All 109 people on board are killed along with at least four on the ground.
In August 2005, an Air France Airbus burst into flames after shooting off the runway at Toronto airport following a storm. No one died in the crash.
Brazil had two major plane crashes in 2006 and 2007, raising concerns about the safety of air travel in Latin America’s largest country.
In July 2007, all 187 people on board and 12 people on the ground died when a TAM airline Airbus A 320 overshot a runway at Sao Paulo’s Congonhas airport.
In September 2006, a Gol airline passenger jet crashed in the Amazon jungle after it and a small private plane collided. All 154 people on board died.
(Additional reporting by Jean-Baptiste Vey, Gerard Bon, Astrid Wendlandt and Tim Hepher in Paris, Pedro Fonseca in Rio; editing by Crispian Balmer and Angus MacSwan)
By Estelle Shirbon
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