228 Feared Dead in Presumed Crash of Air France Jetliner

An Air France flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean during a thunderstorm on June 1, 2009, with 228 passengers and crew on board.
By Edward Cody and Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 2, 2009

PARIS, June 1 -- The last transmission was received about 4:15 a.m. Then, nothing.

Air France Flight 447 was an Airbus 330-200, a big, modern jetliner designed, as its name implies, to ride through anything. But somewhere over the Atlantic, in the dead of night, in a vicious lightning storm, it fell out of the sky.

The plane had taken off Sunday night from Rio de Janeiro, bound for Paris. It carried 12 crew members and 216 passengers, a mix of nationalities reflecting the democratization of air travel: 61 French citizens and 58 Brazilians, but also nine Chinese, nine Italians, six Swiss, five British, five Lebanese, four Hungarians, two Americans and others from a total of 32 countries, from Estonia to Gambia to Morocco to the Philippines.

The crew made its last radio contact with a Brazilian control tower at 3:30 a.m. Paris time, about three hours after the routine takeoff from Brazil's GaleĆ£o-Antonio Carlos Jobim International Airport, according to Pierre-Henri Gourgeon, Air France's chief executive.

Half an hour later it encountered a severe storm, including thunder, lightning and strong turbulence. Beginning at 4:14 a.m. Paris time, the aircraft emitted a series of automatic messages via satellite indicating that its electrical system was not functioning and that it had suffered a loss of cabin pressure.

Those were the final signals from the plane.

At the time, the Airbus was about 190 miles northeast of the Brazilian city of Natal, heading along its planned flight path toward the Cape Verde islands off West Africa, a course that should have brought it to Paris at 11:15 a.m., Air France said.

That Atlantic zone falls between normal radar coverage from either Brazil or West Africa, although contact remains via radio, authorities here said. Although the plane's position was known as of the final satellite messages, French officials and airline pilots noted that the plane could have plummeted directly into the water or flown on for hundreds of miles, making the search zone a long, broad path across the ocean between northeast Brazil and far western Africa.

Given the vastness of the ocean and the uncertainty about where the plane went down, some experts said, the crash site might never be pinpointed. But a growing number of countries, including Brazil, France and Spain, contributed ships and planes to the search for debris, and the Pentagon dispatched a surveillance aircraft and an Air Force search-and-rescue team from the U.S. Southern Command air base in El Salvador. French officials reportedly asked the Obama administration whether U.S. spy satellites or listening posts might provide clues to the fate of the jetliner.

"If an airplane went down in the mid-Atlantic, it could be very difficult to find any physical wreckage," said John Hansman, an aeronautics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "The mid-oceans are one of the remotest parts of the world. It's like going to the North Pole."

The plane was cruising at about 500 mph, at an altitude of 35,000 feet, when it hit the line of thunderstorms in the Horse Latitudes, an area renowned for centuries both for sudden calms and for unpredictable winds.

William R. Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation in the United States, said airliners typically fly high enough to soar above thunderstorms or simply go around them. Modern aircraft, such as the twin-engine A330-200, are engineered to weather a lightning strike without serious damage, and such strikes are relatively common occurrences, he said.

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