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Air France plane carrying 228 people missing over Atlantic Ocean

SAO PAULO, Brazil (AP) - A missing Air France jet carrying 228
people from Rio de Janeiro to Paris ran into lightning and strong
thunderstorms over the Atlantic Ocean, officials said Monday.
Brazil began a search mission off its northeastern coast.

Chief Air France spokesman Francois Brousse said it is possible
the plane was hit by lightning.

Air France Flight 447, an Airbus A330, left Rio on Sunday at 7
p.m. local time (2200 GMT, 6 p.m. EDT) with 216 passengers and 12
crew members on board, company spokeswoman Brigitte Barrand.

About four hours later, the plane sent an automatic signal
indicating electrical problems while going through strong
turbulence, Air France said.

The plane "crossed through a thunderous zone with strong
turbulence" at 0200 GMT Monday (10 p.m. EDT Sunday). An automatic
message was received fourteen minutes later "signaling electrical
circuit malfunction."

Brazil's air force did not know where the aircraft disappeared,
but a spokesman said it was searching near the archipelago of
Fernando de Noronha because if an accident had happened in
Brazilian waters, it would be in that area.

The spokesman said there was no immediate indication of what
might have happened to the plane. He spoke on condition of
anonymity in keeping with department policy.

Two Brazilian Air Force planes were searching the waters about
300 kilometers northeast of the coastal city of Natal near the
archipelago of Fernando de Noronha, a Brazilian air force spokesman
said, speaking on condition of anonymity in keeping with air force
policy.

The region is about 1,500 miles northeast of Rio.

A police official on Fernando de Noronha said the weather was
clear last night into this morning.

"It's going to take a long time to carry out this search,"
Douglas Ferreira Machado, head of investigation and accident
prevention for Brazil's Civil Aeronautics Agency, or ANAC, told
Globo news. "It could be a long, sad story. The black box will be
at the bottom of the sea."

Air France-KLM CEO Pierre-Henri Gourgeon, at a news conference
in Paris, said the pilot had 11,000 hours of flying experience,
including 1,700 hours flying this aircraft. No name was released.

Aviation experts said it was clear the plane was not in the air
any longer, due to the amount of fuel it would have been carrying.

"The conclusion to be drawn is that something catastrophic
happened on board that has caused this airplane to ditch in a
controlled or an uncontrolled fashion," Jane's Aviation analyst
Chris Yates told The Associated Press.

"I would suggest that potentially it went down very quickly and
so quickly that the pilot on board didn't have a chance to make
that emergency call," Yates said, adding that the possibilities
ranged from mechanical failure to terrorism.

Barrand said the airline set up an information center at Paris'
Charles de Gaulle airport for the families of those on board. That
center said 60 French citizens were on the plane. Italy said at
least three passengers were Italian.

"Air France shares the emotion and worry of the families
concerned," she said.

The flight was supposed to arrive in Paris at 0915 GMT (5:15
a.m. EDT), according to the airport.

Airbus declined to comment until more details emerge.

The Airbus A330-200 is a twin-engine, long-haul, medium-capacity
passenger jet, and is 58.8 meters (190 feet) long, according to
Airbus. It is a shortened version of the standard A330, and can
hold up to 253 passengers. It first went into service in 1998,
there are 341 in use worldwide today. It can fly up to 7,760 miles
(12,500 kilometers).

French President Nicolas Sarkozy expressed his "extreme worry"
and sent ministers to Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport to monitor
the situation.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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