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228 Feared Dead in Presumed Crash of Air France Jetliner
But Henry Margusity, a senior meteorologist for AccuWeather.com, told the Associated Press 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.
Air France expressed condolences to families of the passengers, tacitly acknowledging that there was little hope of finding anybody alive in what seemed likely to become the greatest disaster in the history of the French national airline.
"We can fear the worst," said Jean-Louis Borloo, the French environment and transportation minister, who was at Paris-Charles de Gaulle International Airport on Monday directing attempts to locate the aircraft.
Borloo discounted the possibility of a terrorist attack and said officials had tentatively concluded that the plane's disappearance was accidental. But he also emphasized that the information available at that point made any definitive explanation impossible.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who met with relatives and friends of passengers at the Paris airport, acknowledged that chances of finding any survivors were slim.
An Air France spokesman, François Brousse, said the most probable explanation was that the plane was hit by severe lightning during its passage through the turbulence. But Dominique Bussereau, France's junior transportation minister, emphasized that no firm conclusions could yet be reached.
"No possibility is excluded," Sarkozy declared.
Air France said the plane was commanded by a veteran pilot with 11,000 hours in the air, including 1,700 at the controls of an Airbus A330. The aircraft used for Flight 447, the company said, was put into service in 2005 and had been inspected April 16 without any anomalies.
The A330-200 is a common jet on international routes, particularly transatlantic flights, and analysts said it has an enviable safety record with many of the world's major carriers. Northwest, which recently merged with Delta Air Lines, has 11 A330-200 planes and 21 of the larger A330-300 models. US Airways has nine A330-300s, according to Airbus.
Experts said the best clues to the cause of Flight 447's disappearance undoubtedly would come from the plane's "black box" data and voice recorders -- if they can be recovered.
Typically, the black boxes have tracking beacons that activate when the boxes get wet, and the radio signal works for about 30 days. But search teams have to be within 4,000 to 5,000 feet of the recorders to pick up the signals, so among the key questions are how long the plane kept flying after its last automatic satellite transmission and why no mayday call was received from the pilots.
Hans Weber, an aviation technology consultant, said airplane satellite systems have their limits. "Just like your car, you may have all this information, but if you had a catastrophic accident, the GPS system will not survive," he said.
The most deadly previous incident involving an Air France plane occurred in 2000, when a Concorde slammed into the ground shortly after takeoff in Paris, killing 109 people aboard the supersonic aircraft along with four others in a hotel that was demolished by the crash.
The world's deadliest crash was a 1977 collision between two Boeing 747s at Tenerife in the Canary Islands that killed 583 people.
Freeman reported from Washington.