Vast search of Atlantic Ocean continues for Air France jet
RIO DE JANEIRO — The search could not be more daunting — military jets and boats looking for an Air France plane with 228 people aboard that flew beyond the reach of radar and went missing somewhere in the middle of the vast Atlantic Ocean.
Brazilian officials said the area where they think the jet went down is so remote the first military boats will not arrive there until Wednesday morning. Air Force jets from France and Brazil were crisscrossing the ocean Monday, but have yet to spot anything.
Air France Flight 447, a 4-year-old Airbus A330, left Rio Sunday night about 7 p.m. local time with 216 passengers and 12 crew members on board, and flew for more than three uneventful hours before leaving the Brazilian coast. Air traffic controllers lost contact with the jet just as it was entering a band of violent thunderstorms and heavy turbulence that stretched along the equator.
If no survivors are found, it will be the worst air disaster since 2001.
The official Agencia Brasil news agency on Monday quoted Brazilian Air Force spokesman Col. Jorge Amaral as saying that a commercial airplane pilot saw what appeared to be fire on the ocean near the route taken by the Air France plane.
"There is information that the pilot of a TAM aircraft saw several orange points on the ocean while flying over the region ... where the Air France plane disappeared," Amaral said, referring to the Brazilian airline TAM. "After arriving in Brazil, the pilot found out about the disappearance (of the Air France plane) and said that he thought those points on the ocean were fire."
Brazil’s military said its search was focused on a large stretch of ocean 680-745 miles (1,100-1,200 kilometers) north-northeast of Natal, the area where the plane was when it sent an automated message reporting electrical system failure and a loss of cabin pressure. Three French planes also were en route, and the French navy was asked to send a search craft, a commander said.
The government of France has requested U.S. assistance, said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell, "and we are trying to determine how we can best be of help at this difficult time."
What happened to the plane remains a mystery and French President Nicolas Sarkozy said "no hypothesis" is being excluded. Some experts dismissed speculation that lightning might have brought the plane down. But violent thunderheads — they reached more than 50,000 feet high in the flight’s path — can pound planes with hail and high winds, causing structural damage if pilots can’t maneuver around them.
The plane was cruising normally at 35,000 feet (10,670 meters) and 522 mph (840 kph) just before it disappeared nearly four hours into the flight. No trouble was reported as the plane left radar contact, beyond Brazil’s Fernando de Noronha archipelago, at 10:48 p.m. local time. But just north of the equator a line of towering thunderstorms loomed.
The plane "crossed through a thunderous zone with strong turbulence," Air France said. About 14 minutes later, at 11:14 p.m. local time, 0214 GMT (10:14 p.m. EDT Sunday), an automatic message was sent reporting the electrical failure and a loss of cabin pressure. Air France said the message was the last it heard from Flight 447.
Sarkozy said he told family members of passengers on Air France Flight 447 that prospects of finding survivors are "very small."
While the accident is under investigation, a Pentagon official said he’d seen no indication of terrorism or foul play. The official spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the subject.
Chief Air France spokesman Francois Brousse said a lightning strike could have damaged the plane. And Henry Margusity, a senior meteorologist for AccuWeather.com, noted that the thunderstorms towered up to 50,000 feet in the area, so it was possible the plane flew directly into the most charged part of the storm — the top of it.
But other experts doubted a bolt of lightning would be enough to bring the jet down. Some pointed to turbulence as a more dangerous factor.
"Lightning issues have been considered since the beginning of aviation. They were far more prevalent when aircraft operated at low altitudes. They are less common now since it’s easier to avoid thunderstorms," said Bill Voss, president and CEO of Flight Safety Foundation, Alexandria, Va.
Voss said planes are built to dissipate electricity along the aircraft’s skin, and are tested for resistance to big electromagnetic shocks.
Asking for U.S. satellite help, Sarkozy said finding the plane "will be very difficult."
"(I met with) a mother who lost her son, a fiancee who lost her future husband. I told them the truth," he said at a grim news conference in Paris.
The 216 passengers included 126 men, 82 women, 7 children and a baby, Air France said. There were 61 French and 58 Brazilians; 30 other countries were represented, including two Americans.
In Brazil, sobbing relatives arrived at Rio de Janeiro’s international airport, where Air France was assisting the families.
Among the passengers were Luiz Roberto Anastacio, 50, the South America head for France-based tire maker Michelin; Prince Pedro Luis de Orleans e Braganca, 26, a member of Brazil’s now-defunct royal family and a descendent of Dom Pedro II, the nation’s last emperor; and the cabinet chief for Rio’s mayor.
Some people just missed disaster. Bernardo Ciriaco said there were two Air France flights leaving Rio for Paris Sunday night — and his brother was on one of them. It was not until hours later that his brother, Gustavo, called from Paris to say that he had been bumped to the missing flight, but then talked his way back onto the other one.
"Thank God he complained until he got back on the original flight. Our family is so relieved," Ciriaco said.
Greg Keller reported from Charles de Gaulle airport in Roissy, France. Associated Press reporters Emma Vandore, Laurent Lemel and Laurent Pirot in Paris; Alan Clendenning and Tales Azzoni in Sao Paulo and Marco Sibaja in Brasilia; Slobodan Lekic in Brussels, Belgium; Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Lara Jakes in Washington and Airlines and Transportation Editor Greg Stec in New York also contributed to this report.