PARIS (Reuters) – An Air France plane with 228 people on board went missing on its way from Brazil to Paris on Monday, after hitting strong turbulence, prompting military jets to take off from both sides of the Atlantic to search for it.
Air France said in a statement the plane sent an automatic message reporting an electrical short-circuit at 0214 GMT, roughly 15 minutes after flying into the turbulence.
Senior French minister Jean-Louis Borloo ruled out the possibility of a hijacking of the flight AF 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris.
"There was very, very strong turbulence. For now we can't understand what happened," Borloo, the second most senior in the government, said on France Info radio.
"Apparently the possibility of a hijacking has been excluded," Borloo said.
Flight AF 447 has 216 passengers and 12 crew on board. It left Rio de Janeiro on Sunday at 7 p.m. (2200 GMT) and was expected to land at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport on Monday at 11:15 a.m. (0915 GMT).
"It's an awful tragedy. It's dreadful ... Until 10.45 a.m. (0845 GMT) we could still have some hope, but at this stage the kerosene reserves have been more than used up," Borloo added.
The jet's last known location was unclear.
A government source in Brazil said the plane disappeared from Brazilian radars at around 0130 GMT, about three to 3 1/2 hours into its flight. That would mean controllers lost track of the plane while it was closer to Brazil than to France.
Henry Wilson, a Brazilian air force spokesman, said planes had taken off from the island of Fernando de Noronha off Brazil's northeast coast to look for the Air France jet.
Jean-Christophe Ruffin, France's ambassador in the west African country of Senegal, told French iTele that aircraft had also taken off from there to search for the missing Airbus.
The plane was an Airbus 330-200, according to the Paris airports authority website.
Pilots stay in contact with traffic control across the Atlantic by radioing in their position every 20 to 30 minutes. There is no radar cover because radar can only 'see' along a direct line of sight.
"Anything that's the other side of the horizon cannot be seen by radar, so once you've gone 200 or 300 miles off the coast, radar cannot see you any longer," said David Learmount of Flight International.
Air France said relatives of people traveling on board flight AF 447 were being taken care of in a special area of Charles de Gaulle airport.
Part of the terminal was briefly evacuated because of a suspect package but that turned out to be a false alarm.
The last major incident involving an Air France plane came in July 2000 when one of its Concorde supersonic airliners crashes just after taking off from Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris, bound for New York.
All 109 people on board are killed along with at least four on the ground.
Brazil had two major plane crashes in 2006 and 2007, raising concerns about the safety of air travel in Latin America's largest country.
In July 2007, all 187 people on board and 12 people on the ground died when a TAM airline Airbus A 320 overshot a runway at Sao Paulo's Congonhas airport.
In September 2006, a Gol airline passenger jet crashed in the Amazon jungle after it and a small private plane collided. All 154 people on board died.
(Reporting by Jean-Baptiste Vey, Gerard Bon, Astrid Wendlandt and Tim Hepher in Paris, Pedro Fonseca in Rio; editing by Crispian Balmer and Angus MacSwan)