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 Galeão-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.
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.