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Search begins off Brazil's coast for 'disappeared' Air France flight

Air France reports a possible lightning strike. Airbus 330-200 has a good safety record.

By Andrew DownieCorrespondent, Matthew ClarkStaff writer / June 1, 2009

Air France company chairman Pierre Henri Gourgeon addresses reporters at the Air France headquarters at Paris's Charles De Gaulle airport Monday morning. He confirmed that an Air France Airbus A330 was missing between Rio de Janeiro and Paris, after it sent an automatic signal indicating electrical problems while going through an area of strong turbulence.

Bob Edme/AP

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RIO DE JANEIRO – How does a commercial airplane just disappear in the middle of a flight?

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It's the question of the morning as an Air France flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris has vanished over the Atlantic.

Air France Flight 447 took off from Rio at 7:00 p.m. local time Sunday night carrying 216 passengers and 12 crew members, but Brazil's Air Force says that the Airbus A330 passenger plane disappeared near the Brazilian island of Fernando de Noronha, a 7-square mile island about 186 miles northeast of the coastal Brazilian city of Natal.

The last contact with the plane was at 10:36 p.m. Brazil time.

Let the search begin

Brazil's Air Force has two planes searching for wreckage. One left from the city of Salvador and another from Recife.

“We have two planes up there searching,” said Air Force spokesman Col. Henry Munhoz. He refused to discuss causes, saying it would be speculation. He said one search aircraft was a Hercules and the other a Bandeirantes plane used specifically for such reconnaissance missions. However, he also cautioned that it was a "visual search" and was dependent on cloudless skies.

Brazil is also pointing out that the search area could be three times the size of Europe.

Lightning strike?

"The plane might have been struck by lightning. It's a possibility," said Francois Brousse, head of communications at Air France, according to a Reuters report. Earlier, Air France said the plane encountered turbulence and had reported an electrical fault via an automatic message.

French transport minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, said there was "real pessimism at this hour."

"We can fear the worst," he said.

But French President Nicolas Sarkozy has dispatched top officials to look into the situation. He expressed his "extreme worry" and sent the junior minister for transport, Dominique Bussereau, and Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo to Charles de Gaulle airport to monitor the situation.

Good safety record so far

The Airbus A330 has "enjoyed a near-perfect safety record since it began commercial operation in 1993," reports The Guardian.

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