Hundreds feared dead in mystery airline disaster

Search for wreckage and survivors amid reports lightning struck plane

John Lichfield
Tuesday 02 June 2009 00:00 BST

An Air France passenger jet with 228 people on board vanished into thin air over the southern Atlantic yesterday amid reports the plane may have been crippled by lightning.

Mystery may surround the fate of flight AF447, from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, for many weeks or even months. Air France said that several of the electrical systems on the Airbus A330-200 had failed simultaneously during a storm – suggesting that the aircraft may have been brought down by lightning in the ocean between South America and Africa.

Aviation experts said it was unthinkable that a modern aircraft should have been destroyed or crippled by a lightning strike, however severe. Security officials in both France and the United States said that there was no indication that the plane had been bombed or hijacked.

Searches for wreckage were under way last night in a vast area of ocean between Brazil, Senegal and the Cape Verde and Canary islands.

The flight left Rio at 7pm local time on Sunday with 216 passengers including seven children and a baby aboard and 12 crew members. Four hours later, when the aircraft should have been approaching the African coast, it transmitted an automatic signal saying that its electrical circuits had "malfunctioned". Fourteen minutes earlier, the plane had entered a system of severe storms and turbulence.

"The most likely explanation is that the plane was struck by lightning," said François Brousse, director of communications for Air France. However, the French Transport Minister, Dominique Bussereau, said all speculation was likely to be "false and misleading". "We know nothing," he said. "We owe it to the families of those aboard to be cautious."

For many hours the arrival indicators at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, where the flight was due at 11.15 Paris time, simply showed the word retardé or delayed. In the middle of the afternoon, the chief executive of Air France-KLM, Pierre-Henri Gourgeon, confirmed that the aircraft had been lost without trace.

"We are without doubt facing an air catastrophe," M. Gourgeon told a news conference. "By now, the plane would not have enough fuel to still be in flight."

Aviation experts said that the chances that the accident was caused by lightning alone were negligible. "Lightning issues have been considered since the beginning of aviation," Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Virginia, told the Associated Press. "They were far more prevalent when aircraft operated at low altitudes. They are less common now since it's easier to avoid thunderstorms. I cannot recall in recent history any examples of aircraft being brought down by lightning."

A Brazilian air force official warned that it might take many weeks before the mystery was fully resolved. "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."

If the aircraft is confirmed lost with all passengers and crew, it would be the worst disaster in the 75-year history of Air France.

It would also be the worst air disaster for almost eight years, since 12 November 2001, when an American Airlines plane crashed in Queens, New York City, killing 265 people.

President Nicolas Sarkozy visited relatives of passengers at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris and expressed his "profound emotion and anxiety" adding that the prospect of finding any survivors was "very small". He described the event as "a disaster the likes of which Air France has never seen" and said "no hypothesis is ruled out" in the search for an explanation. Earlier, distraught relatives and friends, waiting to meet the flight, were led away to a secure zone by airport staff to shield them from the media.

Most of those aboard are Brazilian and French citizens but Italians, Lebanese, Moroccans and British passport-holders were also among the missing.

Last night three young Irish doctors were confirmed as having been on the flight. They were named locally as Aisling Butler, of Roscrea, Co Tipperary, Jane Deasy of Dublin and Eithne Walls, originally from Belfast. They were travelling with a fourth woman, a British national from Wales. Air France also said there were five Britons on the passenger list. Patricia Coakley, from Whitby, North Yorkshire, said she believes her husband Arthur was on the flight. Mr Coakley’s business partner Ken Pearce said the previous flight which he had hoped to board was full.

The last major accident involving Air France was the crash of a Concorde supersonic airliner near Charles de Gaulle airport in 2001. All 109 people on board were killed and four died on the ground.

The Airbus A330-200 is a twin- engine, long-haul, medium-capacity, shortened version of the standard A330. It can hold up to 253 passengers. It began flying in 1998 and there are 341 in service.

Brazilian air force planes took off from the island of Fernando de Noronha off Brazil's north-east coast to search for the missing plane. The Brazilian navy sent three ships. Aircraft from Senegal and the Canary islands were also combing the waves of the southern Atlantic. Many aspects of the disappearance recall the crash of a Pan Am airliner on the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988. First reports then also spoke of severe storms and the possibility that the plane had been damaged by lightning or turbulence. Only study of the wreckage, and discovery of traces of explosives, proved that there had been a terrorist attack, later blamed in Libya. If the Air France Airbus has vanished into the ocean, the circumstances of the crash may never be fully explained.

The senior French Transport and Environment Minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, said last night that the "possibility of a terrorist attack" had been "completely ruled out". US security officials said the same thing. They did not explain why they were so confident that foul play was not involved.

Rumours that the plane was carrying senior executives of the French bank BNP-Paribas sent the bank's shares plunging on the Paris Bourse yesterday. The bank said later that none of its officials were aboard.

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