'No hope' for lost airliner passengers

An international search began yesterday for a French passenger jet feared to have crashed into the Atlantic.


Distraught relatives and friends of passengers of Air France flight  AF447 arrive at the crisis centre at Charles de Gaulle airport near Paris June 1, 2009. The 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.  

REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes (FRANCE DISASTER IMAGES OF THE DAY) *** Local Caption ***  GFM110_FRANCE-_0601_11.JPG *** Local Caption ***  GFM110_FRANCE-_0601_11.JPG
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PARIS // An international search began yesterday for a French passenger jet feared to have crashed into the Atlantic. The Air France airliner, carrying 228 people, went missing after flying into a fierce storm, which it may have been struck by lightning, on a flight from Rio de Janeiro bound for Paris, aviation officials said in France.

The French government ruled out hijacking as a cause of the aircraft's loss almost immediately after the earliest reports of the disappearance of the Airbus 330-200, which had been due to land at Charles de Gaulle airport at 11.15am yesterday. Brazilian air rescue services began a search of an immense stretch of the ocean for signs of wreckage. They will be aided by French and Spanish long-range reconnaissance planes that left from Senegal in west Africa, and possibly the US military, which the French government asked for help. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and French aviation sources conceded that there was no hope of finding survivors.

"We are undoubtedly facing an air disaster," Air France's chief executive, Pierre-Henri Gourgeon, told reporters. "The entire company is thinking of the families and shares their anguish." The airline's communications director, François Brousse, said: "The most likely thing is that the plane was hit by lightning. It was in a stormy area with strong turbulence." But air safety specialists pointed to the robust, sophisticated qualities of the Airbus, designed like all modern jets to resist lightning strikes. One expert said what was so far known about the aircraft's loss suggested a "catastrophic systems failure".

Eight children, including one baby, were among the 216 passengers who boarded Flight AF447 in Rio on Sunday evening. The plane took off at about 7.30pm. According to Air France officials in Rio, Brazilians formed the largest group - 80 - among those on board, followed by about 70 French nationals. The adult passengers - 126 male, 82 female - are also said to include about 18 Germans, nine Italians, six US citizens, five Chinese nationals, four Hungarians, two Britons, two Irish citizens and two Spaniards.

Among the crew of 12 were three experienced pilots, the commander described by Air France as having completed 11,000 flying hours, 1,700 of them on Airbus. From information made public by officials in France and Brazil, Flight AF447 had apparently covered more than 2,000km and was heading north-west from Brazil's north-eastern coast when it flew into a storm and encountered "very heavy turbulence".

The last contact came in the form of an automatic message at 2.14am GMT reporting an electrical short circuit. This suggests that the crew had been overcome by a sudden calamity that did not even leave them time to send a distress signal. Brazilian, French, Spanish and Senegalese aviation authorities attempted in vain to re-establish contact. Reports in Brazil said the last message received from the crew, 45 minutes before the automatic message, reported normal altitude and speed and said the aircraft would enter Senegalese air space at 2.20am.

The Brazilian air force said the plane was in the vicinity of the Brazilian islands of Fernando de Noronha, about 550km from the mainland city of Natal, when the crew's last message was received. However, the loss of contact means, according to one French report, that the search area extends as far as 2,000km across the Atlantic west of the Cape Verde Islands. Douglas Ferreira Machado, head of investigation and accident prevention for Brazil's civil aviation agency, told Brazil's Globo News the search could be "long, sad story". Endorsing widespread acceptance that the plane had crashed into the ocean, he added: "The black box will be at the bottom of the sea."

At Charles de Gaulle airport, on the outskirts of Paris, anxious relatives who had arrived to meet returning passengers were received in a special area of Terminal 2 with access to doctors, psychologists and translators. Similar facilities were provided at Rio's Tom Jobim airport. Air France offered its "sincere condolences" to all those close to people on board. A crisis centre established at the airport was visited yesterday afternoon by the French president, Mr Sarkozy, who ordered the authorities to do all necessary to "shed light on the circumstances surrounding its disappearance as rapidly as possible".

Jean-Louis Borloo, the French environment and energy minister, whose responsibilities include transport, said hijacking could be "clearly ruled out". Speaking on the French television channel TF1, he said: "It was in an area of strong tropical turbulence. Aircraft of those sort are accustomed to dealing with this, but there must have been an accumulation of circumstances." But the junior transport minister, Dominique Bussereau, cautioned against speculation on the precise cause. "We owe it the families," he said at the airport.

David Gleave, a senior aviation safety investigator, told Britain's Sky News that the loss without other explanation of an aircraft as modern as the Airbus was indicative of a highly unusual series of failures affecting all radio systems. Air France said the lost Airbus entered service in April 2005, had accumulated 2,500 flights and nearly 19,000 flight hours and received its most recent hangar maintenance check six weeks ago.

"If there is no information from the flight it would indicate a catastrophic systems failure," Mr Gleave said. Experts agreed last night that a lightning strike should not ordinarily bring down such an aircraft. Kieran Daly, speaking to CNN, described the A330-200 as "reliable, ultra-modern, state-of-the-art "airplane" with an impeccable safety record. The only reported incident involving an aircraft of this type had occurred in 1994, before the aircraft went into commercial service, he said. It happened during tests in Toulouse, France, as pilots subjected the plane to "extreme manoeuvres" and the resulting crash was therefore not caused by the plane itself. "They are equipped with an array of sophisticated communication equipment, so it must have been something extremely sudden to cause the loss of contact," he added.

If the disaster is confirmed, it will have been the worst accident involving a French passenger plane since July 2000, when an Air France Concorde bound for New York crashed soon after take-off from de Gaulle into a hotel outside Paris. Among the 113 dead were four people on the ground. Brazil's worst air crash also involved an Airbus. All 187 on an A320 operated by Brazil's TAM Linhas Aereas, and 12 more on the ground, were killed when the plane overshot the runway at Sao Paulo.

crandall@thenational.ae With Reuters and Agence France-Presse.