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Outlook Grim for Missing Air France Airplane: Search and Rescue Under Way

Locations in this article:  Los Angeles, CA Paris, France

LightningAn Air France jet that mysteriously disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean late Sunday night has still not been found and is presumed to have crashed.

A spokesman for the airline said that Paris-bound Flight 447 left Rio de Janeiro at 7 p.m. local time and disappeared about four hours later, shortly after sending a series of data signals indicating that there had been an electrical malfunction.

At this point it is unclear what exactly happened to the plane, which was carrying 216 passengers and 12 crew members, but it is presumed to have crashed.The CEO of Air France said that there is little possibility that the plane is still flying, since it was not carrying enough fuel to permit it to stay aloft for so long.

The company is not even quite sure where to look for the jet, since it is not known exactly where it went down. In the meantime, the families of those onboard face an agonizing wait to hear what has become of their loved ones.

The Brazilian Air Force is reportedly looking for the Airbus A330 near the Brazilian archipelago of Fernando de Noronha, which lies about 180 miles off the northeastern-most point of the country. But Air France authorities are saying that the plane could be near the Cape Verde islands off the coast of Africa, based on how fast it was traveling when contact was lost.Stormy sunset

Wherever the jet went down, the recovery operation is bound to be difficult, since the ocean is not forgiving. Debris is bound to be strewn over an enormous area, and the black box would have to be retrieved from the sea floor.

Some aviation experts have speculated that lighting may have caused the plane to crash, while others say that severe turbulence or even terrorism may be the culprit—though terrorism is the least likely cause, according to authorities. One analyst added that whatever happened must have occurred quickly, since the pilot did not put out an emergency call.

What is known for sure is that the plane’s route would have taken it directly through the Intertropical Convergence Zone, a stormy area that hovers around the equator and often produces massive, severe thunderstorms.With this in mind, it’s possible that the plane experienced a combination of circumstances that led to its crash, including, but not limited to, a lightning strike.

Most experts agree that lightning alone would be unlikely to bring a plane down, since modern planes are equipped to handle a strike, and statistics show that nearly all commercial airliners are struck by lightning without incident at least once a year.

The CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation said that there had been no recorded instances of a plane being brought down by lightning in the last 40 years.

Turbulence is being examined as more likely cause of the crash. For example, a huge gust from a tropical storm could have thrown the aircraft into an uncontrollable descent and caused the electrical systems to fail, rendering the pilots unable to use backup systems or send a distress message.

The Airbus A330 went into service in April 2005 and had 18,870 hours of flight time. The captain reportedly had 11,000 flight hours total and 1,700 on the A330.The passengers on board included 80 Brazilians, 73 French passport holders, 18 Germans, nine Italians, six U.S. citizens, and nationals of 13 other countries.

By Karen Elowitt for

Related links: Associated Press, USA Today, Reuters, Times Online, Los Angeles Times

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