An Air France plane carrying 228 passengers and crew on an international flight has vanished over the Atlantic Ocean after hitting heavy turbulence, according to airline officials. Reports said the aircraft was carrying 216 passengers and 12 crew members, including three pilots. The Airbus 330-200, operated by Air France, was flying direct from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil to Paris in France when it went missing while flying through “a thunderous zone with strong turbulence.” Flight AF 447 left Rio de Janeiro at 19:00 local time (22:00 UTC) on May 31, 2009 and reports said the Airbus sent an automatic message at 02:14 UTC on June 1, 2009 reporting a fault in an electrical circuit, some four hours into its 11-hour flight.
French officials believe the aircraft may have been disabled by the storm before it subsequently crashed. Up to a dozen reports of electrical failures were sent from the plane in total before it vanished over the ocean. The jet also sent a warning that it had lost pressure, the Brazilian air force said. Officials said the Airbus A330 was off radar and probably closer to Brazil than to Africa when it went down, and there was no contact with the crew during this time. The plane had been expected to arrive in Paris at 11:10 local time (09:10 UTC) on June 1. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has warned there is very little hope of finding survivors.
Air France officials told reporters the plane may have suffered an electronics failure after being struck by lightening while travelling through the stormy area with strong turbulence. However, officials said all possibilities are being examined, although they added there was no indication to suggest the incident was caused by an act of terrorism. An Air France official said several of the plane’s mechanisms had malfunctioned. The last known contact with the plane was at 01:33 UTC on June 1 when it was located around 565 kilometers (360 miles) off Brazil’s northeast coast, near the island of Fernando de Noronha, according to the Brazilian air force. As it left Brazilian radar range, the plane was flying normally at an altitude of 10,670 meters (35,000 feet) and a speed of 840 kmph (520 mph), the air force said. According to Business Insurance, the hull of the aircraft is insured for around USD100 million.
The passengers on the flight included one child, seven children, 82 women and 126 men. Air France confirmed 61 French and 58 Brazilian nationals were among the 216 passengers on board. A list provided by Brazilian authorities showed 26 Germans were also on board. Air France said the nationalities of the other victims included: Argentinean (1), Austrian (1), Belgian (1), British (5), Canadian (1), Chinese (9), Croatian (1), Danish (1), Dutch (1), Estonian (1), Filipino (1), Gambian (1), Hungarian (4), Icelandic (1), Irish (3), Italian (9), Lebanese (5), Moroccan (2), Norwegian (3), Polish (2), Romanian (1), Russian (1), Slovakian (3), Spanish (2), Swedish (1), Swiss (6), and Turkish (1). The 12 crew members are all reported to be French nationals.
Rescue teams are currently searching for the jet in the Atlantic Ocean. Crews have narrowed their search to a zone located around 1,100 kilometers (680 miles) off Brazil’s northeastern coast based on the last signal from the aircraft. Plane and vessels from France, Spain, Senegal, and Brazil are involved in the search, while the United States is said to be offering help with satellite reconnaissance.
According to Airbus, the aircraft was registered under the number F-GZCP and was delivered to Air France in April 2005. The aircraft had accumulated approximately 18,870 flight hours in some 2,500 flights and was powered by CF6-80E1 engines, made by American company General Electric, Airbus said. It last underwent maintenance in April this year. Air France added the pilot had 11,000 hours of flying experience, including 1,700 hours flying this aircraft. According to reports, the Airbus A330-200 is a modern and popular aircraft, used mostly for long transatlantic flights, and is valued at around USD180 million.
If the plane is confirmed to have crashed, it would be the first time an A330 has been lost during an operational airline flight. It would also be the worst loss of life involving an Air France plane in the firm’s 75-year history. The last major incident involving an Air France plane was in July 2000 when one of its Concorde airliners crashed just after taking off from Paris. All 109 people on board were killed along with at least four on the ground. In August 2005, an Air France Airbus burst into flames after overshooting the runway at Toronto Airport following a storm. No one died in the incident.
Sources: CNN News, BBC News, Associated Press, Agence France Presse, Reuters News, Insurance Day, Xinhua News Agency, Platts Commodity News, Global Reinsurance
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