Air France fears “a catastrophe” as jet goes missing with 228 people on board

By Calvin Palmer

A search and rescue operation has been mounted off the northeast coast of Brazil after an Air France jet disappeared from radar screens during a thunderstorm yesterday evening.

Flight AF447, bound for Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, had 216 passengers and 12 crew aboard. It took off from Rio de Janeiro at 7:03 p.m. local time and the last contact was four hours later when the pilot reported severe turbulence.

Fifteen minutes later, the plane sent an automatic error message reporting a “fault in an electronic circuit”.

“The most likely thing is that the plane was hit by lightning. The plane was in a stormy area with strong turbulence, which provoked problems,” said Francois Brouse, Air France’s director of communications.

Air France said the 216 passengers were made up of one infant, seven children, 82 women and 126 men. It said that the Airbus A330-200 aircraft entered service in 2005 and last had maintenance on April 16.

Air France chief executive Pierre-Henri Gourgeon said the pilot had 11,000 hours of flying experience, including 1,700 hours flying this aircraft. No name was released.

“We are probably facing an air catastrophe,” Gourgeon added. “It’s certainly no longer in the air now. It would have run out of fuel.”

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said that he feared that there were Britons on board the aircraft.

The Foreign Office said it was “urgently” seeking news on whether there were any Britons on board.

“I do fear that there may be some British citizens on board,” Brown said.

The Guardian newspaper reports two Britons and three Irish citizens are among the 216 passengers, which also included about 80 Brazilians, 70 French, 40 Germans, as well as five Italians and three Moroccans.

The search operation began around Fernando de Noronha but Douglas Ferreira Machado, head of investigation and accident prevention for Brazil’s Civil Aeronautics Agency, said that the aircraft could even have been near the coast of Africa by the time contact was lost, based on the speed it was travelling.

“It’s going to take a long time to carry out this search,” said Machado. “It could be a long, sad story. The black box will be at the bottom of the sea.”

France sent a military aircraft from Senegal to join the search.

President Nicolas Sarkozy’s office said he had been informed of the crisis and ordered all relevant government agencies to hunt “for any sign of the plane”.

France’s transport minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, said there was “real pessimism at this hour”.

“We can fear the worst,” he said.

[Based on reports by The Times, The Daily Telegraph and Associated Press.]

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