It has been confirmed by Air France that their flight AF 447, linking Rio de Janeiro with Paris (Charles de Gaulle) had disappeared earlier today from the Brazilian radars and has never contacted Senegalese air traffic control.
The Airbus A330 should have landed in Paris at 11:10 local time but it has dissappeared earlier this morning. The plane – with 216 passengers (126 men, 82 women, 7 children and a baby) and 12 crew members onboard – took off from Rio de Janeiro Sunday evening at 7pm local time, heading towards Europe on a route that would lead northwards above Brazil, then crossing the Atlantic towards Senegal and flying through Spanish air-space before arriving to the French capital. However, contact with the aircraft was lost about 3 and a half hours into the flight (~1:33 GMT), when the plane was cruising at 35.000 feet at a speed of 840 km/h, approximately 300 kms from the Brazilian shore (565 kms north-east of the Brazilian city of Natal), above the Atlantic Ocean – already outside of Brazilian radar-space. It had last contacted air traffic control in Recife, Brazil. Brazilian Air Force started the search early Monday morning around the Northeastern Brazilian island of Fernando de Noronha (365 kms from the South-American coast). They were later joined by a French military plane flying out of Senegal to help with the search. Brazilian officials cautioned that the search area could be three times the size of Europe. See map on CNN.com and the map on BBC.co.uk.
There were several possible scenarios why contact was lost, it could have been a transponder problem, a hijack or a crash. Transport analyst Kieran Daly told CNN that the lack of communication with the aircraft “does suggest it was something serious and catastrophic.” He said the aircraft involved was one delivered to Air France in April 2005. Given the fact that that Airbus A330 is one of the safest airplane types currently flying around the Globe – not having a regular fatal accident since its first commercial flight in 1998 -, theoretically it could have done a water landing – similar to the US Airways flight that ditched in the Hudson river earlier this year – but the fact that all radio contact had been lost does not sound too positive at this stage. Also in the middle of a storm at the open ocean it is a much harder task than the Hudson river in quite weather.
The plane was hit by heavy turbulance in stormy weather and reported electrical problems before it lost contact, Air France said Monday. The automatic system of the Airbus A330-200 began a four-minute exchange of messages to the company’s maintenance computers, indicating that “several pieces of aircraft equipment were at fault or had broken down,” at 02:14 GMT (four hours after leaving Rio de Janeiro) as it hit strong turbulence early in its 11-hour flight from Rio de Janeiro to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, Air France CEO Pierre-Henri Gourgeon told a news conference. “This succession of messages signals a totally unforeseeable, great difficulty,” he said. “Something quite new within the plane.” During that time, there was no contact with the crew, Gourgeon said, adding that “It was probable that it was a little bit after those messages that the impact of the plane took place in the Atlantic,” he added. He also said that flight AF 447 was probably closer to Brazil than to Africa when it crashed. Speculations are now pointing towards a possible lightning strike as the cause of the electrical malfunction – but that alone should not have brought down a modern airliner such as the Airbus A330. The jet had also sent a warning that it had lost pressure, the Brazilian air force said. The missing jet, registered as F-GZCP last had a maintenance check on April 16 and has been flying in service since April 18, 2005 – with 18870 recorded flight hours and was powered by General Electric CF6-80E engines. According to Reuters, two Lufthansa planes have flown over the same area shortly before and shortly after the Air France flight – without any incidents. Both German pilots reported the bad, stormy weather.
The chances of finding any survivors were “very low,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy admitted Monday. Air France identified the nationalities of the victims (based on the information received from the Brazilian Authorities) as two Americans, an Argentinean, an Austrian, a Belgian, 58 Brazilians, five British, a Canadian, nine Chinese, a Croatian, a Dane, a Dutch, an Estonian, a Filipino, 61 French, a Gambian, 26 Germans, four Hungarians, three Irish, one Icelandic, nine Italians, five Lebanese, two Moroccans, three Norwegians, two Polish, one Romanian, one Russian, three Slovakian, one South African, two Spanish, one Swedish, six Swiss and one Turk. This means 32 countries are involved in the tragedy. The four Hungarians are said to be 2 adults and 2 children. A woman returning from a 3 week training in Brazil – that she held on behalf of the International Pető Institute – with her spouse and her child – traveling together with another child who had visited relatives in Brazil. According to Brazilian sources, Luis Roberto Anastáci, President of Michelin South America was also among the passengers. Two ticket holders were not allowed to get on board due to the expiration of their passports.
Update (02/June, 20.00 CET): some debris of a plane were found by rescue teams. According to new sources a seat, a life vast, an oil drum and signs of oil and kerosene were found, but there were not enough material to make sure these were parts of the lost plane. Three commercial ships were directed to the area later in the afternoon.
Update (07/June, 10.00 CET): According to CNN, two bodies and some parts of the aircraft were found yesterday. Also a backpack and a leather briefcase were found, the latter holding a flight ticket, which was identified by Air France and it was proven to belong to one of the passengers. Airbus said the automated error messages may show that the speed controls were faulty. Read more here.