Airline officials said Monday they fear the worst after an Air France jetliner carrying 228 people to Paris from Brazil disappeared after running into thunderstorms and turbulence over the Atlantic Ocean.
One Canadian was on board, Canada's Foreign Affairs Department has confirmed.
Air France received an automatic message from Flight 447 signalling an electrical circuit malfunction about four hours into the flight — at 10 p.m. ET on Sunday. The message came shortly after the flight crossed "through a thunderous zone with strong turbulence," said Air France officials.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy met with some of the family members of passengers during a visit to Charles de Gaulle Airport on Monday.
"I told them the truth. The prospects of finding survivors are very small," he said.
Sarkozy said it will be difficult to find the plane because of the "immense" search zone and that France has asked for help from U.S. satellite equipment to locate the plane.
The Airbus A330 was carrying 216 passengers and 12 crew members from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, Air France chief executive officer Pierre Henri Gourgeon told reporters at a brief news conference at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris.
6 p.m. ET Sunday — Flight leaves Rio de Janeiro.
9:36 p.m. ET Sunday — Last contact Brazil's air force has with plane.
10:14 p.m. ET Sunday — Air France receives automatic message from plane "signalling electrical circuit malfunction."
1-2 a.m. ET Monday: French military radar begins searching for plane.
3:30 a.m. ET Monday: Air France sets up crisis centre.
5:15 a.m. ET Monday — Plane misses scheduled arrival time in Paris.
The flight left Rio on Sunday at 7 p.m. local time (6 p.m. ET) and was scheduled to land in Paris on Monday morning, but ran into severe weather.
"After it crossed through storms … then automatic messages were sent out by the plane indicating there was a fault," said Gourgeon. "You can interpret that as meaning the plane was in a difficult situation as it … went through storms."
"We are probably facing an air catastrophe," he said.
Brazilian military planes and ships are searching an area near the archipelago of Fernando de Noronha, more than 300 kilometres off the most eastern point of Brazil and about 2,400 kilometres northeast of Rio.
Other reports, however, suggest the flight may have been further advanced across the ocean when it went missing. Military flights from the West African country of Senegal are also aiding the search.
Experts dismiss lightning theory
Aviation experts say the jet can no longer be in the air, because of the amount of fuel it can hold, and they have speculated a catastrophic event may have occurred.
François Brousse, the head of communications at Air France, told reporters several of the plane's mechanisms had malfunctioned, and that it could have been struck by lightning, but aviation experts expressed doubt that a bolt of lightning was enough to bring the plane down.
Bill Voss, president and CEO of the Virginia-based Flight Safety Foundation, said planes have specific measures built in to help dissipate electricity along the aircraft's skin and are tested for resistance to powerful electromagnetic shocks and equipped to resist them.
When asked whether the airline could rule out an attack, Gourgeon said he had "no way of answering that." However, senior French government minister Jean-Louis Borloo said the plane was not hijacked.
Both the pilot and co-pilot were experienced and had considerable time spent flying the aircraft, said Gourgeon.
"I want to say that the whole airline is deeply touched and shares the mourning of the relatives of passengers," he said, appearing visibly shaken. "And as soon as we know anything, we will pass it on.
The plane had 18,870 flight hours and went into service in April 2005.
Airbus said it would not comment further until more details emerged.
"Our thoughts are with the passengers and with the families of the passengers," said Airbus spokeswoman Maggie Bergsma.
French, Brazilians, Italians on flight
Families and friends who arrived at the Paris airport to meet passengers on board were taken to a special information centre set up by Air France.
Other than Canada, countries known to have passengers on board include Brazil, France, Germany, Italy, U.S., China, Hungary, Spain, U.K., Morocco and Ireland.
The flight's passenger list has not been released, but it did include seven children and one baby.
Canadians concerned about Canadian family members flying on the Air France flight can contact the Department of Foreign Affairs at 1-800-387-3124 or (613) 943-1055, for those living in the Ottawa area.
Air France has also set up toll-free numbers: 0800 800 812 in France or +33 157021055 for international callers.
Air France's last major incident was in July 2000 when a Concorde supersonic jet crashed shortly after taking off from Charles de Gaulle Airport, killing all 109 people on board. Four other people on the ground were killed.
In August 2005, an Air France plane burst into flames after landing amid a fierce thunderstorm at Toronto's Pearson International Airport. The Airbus 340-300 ended up in at least three large pieces after an intense fire broke out when the plane overshot the runway by 200 metres in a heavy rainstorm.
None of the 309 passengers and crew members on board died, but 43 were injured.