A massive search is underway for an Air France jet carrying 228 people — including two Americans — from Rio de Janeiro to Paris believed to have gone down off the northeast coast of Brazil a few hours after takeoff.
The jet lost contact with air traffic controllers after flying into a strong thunderstorm over the Atlantic Ocean and signaling it had an electric problem. Chief Air France spokesman Francois Brousse said "it is possible" the plane was hit by lightning.
Air France Flight 447, an Airbus A330, was carrying 216 passengers and 12 crew members, company spokeswoman Brigitte Barrand said. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Monday that the chances of finding survivors are "very small."
Two Americans were believed to have been on board the flight, along with 61 French, 58 Brazilians and 30 from other countries.
How Dangerous Is Lightning to a Jetliner?
The flight left Rio on Sunday at 7 p.m. local time. About four hours later, the plane sent an automatic signal indicating electrical problems while going through strong turbulence, Air France said.
The plane disappeared about 190 miles northeast of the coastal Brazilian city of Natal, near the archipelago of Fernando de Noronha, a Brazilian air force spokesman said. The air force began a search Monday morning near Fernando de Noronha, he added, speaking on condition of anonymity in keeping with air force policy.
Three Brazilian military planes began searching the area at dawn, flying over the area where the plane vanished and are trying to follow the same route, according to the Brazilian air force. Around 300 Brazilian military personel are involved in the searches. They are searching from the Fernando de Noronha archipelago on, in the direction of Paris. According to military sources, the searches are considered to be of extreme difficulty due to the size of the area.
The are also reports that several French military planes, as well as some Cabo Verde planes, are helping in the searches. A French military plane, the Atlantic 2, the only one specialized in this kind of operation, has left Dakar to help in the searches. It has 13 crew members and a flight autonomy of 15 hours.
The plane "crossed through a thunderous zone with strong turbulence" at 0200 GMT Monday (10 p.m. EDT Sunday). An automatic message was received at 0214 GMT (10:14 p.m. EDT Sunday) "signaling electrical circuit malfunction."
Contact with the plane was lost at 0220 GMT Monday (10:20 p.m. EDT Sunday), an official 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.
"I cannot recall in recent history any examples of aircraft being brought down by lightning," he told The Associated Press.
Barrand said the airline installed an information center at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport for the families of those aboard.
"Air France regrets to announce that it is without news from Air France flight 447 flying from Rio to Paris," she said. "Air France shares the emotion and worry of the families concerned."
The flight was scheduled to arrive in Paris at 0915 GMT (5:15 a.m. EDT), according to the airport.
Air France said the 216 passengers included one infant, seven children, 82 women and 126 men. It says the plane entered service in 2005 and last underwent maintenance April 16.
Portuguese television reported that there were 60 French nationals on board, as well as 5 Italians, 3 Moroccan and 1 Portuguese. But French TV is saying that only 40 French nationals were on board and that most passengers were Brazilian. They are also reporting that 20 German passengers were on board.
A police official on Fernando de Noronha said the weather was clear last night into this morning.
"It's going to take a long time to carry out this search," Douglas Ferreira Machado, head of investigation and accident prevention for Brazil's Civil Aeronautics Agency, or ANAC, told Globo news. "It could be a long, sad story. The black box will be at the bottom of the sea."
Air France-KLM CEO Pierre-Henri Gourgeon, at a news conference in Paris, said the pilot had 11,000 hours of flying experience, including 1,700 hours flying this aircraft. No name was released.
Aviation experts said it was clear the plane was not in the air any longer, due to the amount of fuel it would have been carrying.
"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.
"I would suggest that potentially it went down very quickly and so quickly that the pilot on board didn't have a chance to make that emergency call," Yates said, adding that the possibilities ranged from mechanical failure to terrorism.
Airbus declined to comment until more details emerge.
Barrand said the airline set up an information center at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport for the families of those on board. That center said 60 French citizens were on the plane. Italy said at least three passengers were Italian.
"Air France shares the emotion and worry of the families concerned," she said.
A source at the Paris airport reportedly told AFP they have "lost hope" for the missing jet.
France's minister in charge of transport, Jean-Louis Borloo, said there was a "real pessimism at this hour" about the fate of the aircraft.
"We can fear the worst," he said on Europe-1 radio.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy expressed his "extreme worry" and sent ministers to Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport to "do all they could to help find the aircraft. In a statement, the Elysée said that the President had been informed of the loss of contact this morning and had expressed "the greatest anxiety."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.