Fears of the Worst: Air France Plane from Rio Missing

French officials are fearing the worst Monday after an Air France jet on the way from Rio de Janeiro to Paris disappeared from radar screens. There were 228 people on board.

The Air France jet was scheduled to land at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris at 11:10 a.m. local time on Monday morning. But the Airbus A330-200 never made it. Air traffic controllers lost contact with the aircraft about three and a half hours after it took off from Rio de Janeiro and officals now fear that it crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. Air France said in a statement that 216 passengers and 12 crew members were on board the flight.

"Air France regrets to announce that it is without news from Air France flight 447 flying from Rio to Paris," company spokeswoman Brigitte Barrand said on Monday morning in Paris. "Air France shares the emotion and worry of the families concerned."

The last sign of the aircraft was an automatic signal indicating electrical problems following a patch of strong turbulence. Chief Air France spokesman Francois Brousse said "it was possible" that the plane had been brought down by a lightening strike."

Speaking to Europe-1 radio, the French minister in charge of the transport portfolio, Jean-Louis Borloo, spoke of "real pessimism at this hour" and said: "We can fear the worst." Borloo said that most of the passengers on board the aircraft were Brazilian, but that more than 20 of them were from Germany and at least 40 from France.

According to the Brazilian air force, the plane disappeared about 300 kilometers (190 miles) northeast of Natal, a city on the Brazilian coast. The air force is currently conducting a search near the archipelago of Fernando de Noronha, located in the Atlantic Ocean some 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) from Rio. But there is little certainty regarding where exactly the plane might have gone down.

"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, told Brazilian television, according to the Associated Press. "It could be a long, sad story. The black box will be at the bottom of the sea."

Moroccan air traffic controllers said on Monday that the plane had never appeared on their radars. The French government sent a plane from Dakar, the capital of the West African country of Senegal, to search for the Airbus. Chances of success are limited.

Aircraft are designed to withstand lightening strikes, and passenger jets are hit, on average, once every 1,500 flight hours. The AP cited aviation experts as saying that the chance that the plane had been brought down by a lightening strike was slim. Experts have not ruled out the possibility of a terror attack.

The Air France pilots association insisted there was still a minimum of hope that the jet could have put down on the ocean. In January, a US Airways pilot performed an emergency water landing on the Hudson River in New York in which all of the passengers and crew miraculously survived.

Air France has set up an information center for families and friends of the passengers at Charles de Gaulle airport. French President Nicolas Sarkozy hurried to the airport to meet with distraughtt family members.

Air France has set up a hotline for family members of the passengers. From France it can be reached at 0800-800812. From abroad, the number is +33-1570-21055.

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