SAO PAULO, Brazil – An Air France jet carrying 228 people from Rio de Janeiro to Paris is missing after running into lightning and strong thunderstorms over the Atlantic Ocean, officials said Monday. Brazil began a search mission off its northeastern coast.
Chief Air France spokesman Francois Brousse said the plane could have been hit by lightning.
Air France Flight 447, an Airbus A330, left Rio on Sunday at 7 p.m. local time (2200 GMT, 6 p.m. EDT) with 216 passengers and 12 crew members on board, company spokeswoman Brigitte Barrand.
About four hours later, the plane sent an automatic signal indicating electrical problems while going through strong turbulence, the company said.
The plane "crossed through a thunderous zone with strong turbulence" at 0200 GMT Monday (10 p.m. EDT Sunday). An automatic message was received fourteen minutes later "signaling electrical circuit malfunction."
Brazil's Air Force said the last contact it had with the Air France jet was at 10:36 p.m. local time (0136 GMT Monday, 9:36 p.m. EDT Sunday), but did not say where the plane was at that time.
The air force was searching near the archipelago of Fernando de Noronha, about 300 kilometers (180 miles) northeast of the coastal city of Natal, a spokesman said.
The was no immediate indication of what might have happened to the plane, he added, speaking on condition of anonymity in keeping with department policy.
The region is about 1,500 miles northeast of Rio.
The head of investigation and accident prevention for Brazil's Civil Aeronautics Agency, Douglas Ferreira Machado, told Brazil's Globo TV that he believes 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," he said. "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.
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, and Italy said at least three passengers were Italian.
"Air France shares the emotion and worry of the families concerned," Barrand said.
The flight was supposed to arrive in Paris at 0915 GMT (5:15 a.m. EDT), according to the airport.
Airbus declined to comment until more details emerged.
The Airbus A330-200 is a twin-engine, long-haul, medium-capacity passenger jet, and is 58.8 meters (190 feet) long, according to Airbus. It is a shortened version of the standard A330, and can hold up to 253 passengers. It first went into service in 1998, there are 341 in use worldwide today. It can fly up to 7,760 miles (12,500 kilometers).
French President Nicolas Sarkozy expressed his "extreme worry" and sent ministers to Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport to monitor the situation.
Associated Press reporters Emma Vandore, Laurent Lemel and Laurent Pirot reported from Paris