An Air France plane carrying 228 people from Brazil to France has vanished over the Atlantic after flying into turbulence, airline officials say.

The Airbus sent an automatic message at 0214 GMT, four hours after leaving Rio de Janeiro, reporting a short circuit. It may have been damaged by lightning.

It was well over the ocean when it was lost, making Brazilian and French search planes’ task more difficult.

France’s president said the chances of finding survivors were “very small”.

“It is a catastrophe the likes of which Air France has never seen,” Nicolas Sarkozy said after meeting relatives and friends of passengers at a crisis centre at Charles de Gaulle airport.

Earlier, Air France chief executive Pierre-Henri Gourgeon told reporters: “We are without a doubt faced with an air disaster.”

He added: “The entire company is thinking of the families and shares their pain.”

Flight AF 447 left Rio at 1900 local time (2200 GMT) on Sunday. It had 216 passengers and 12 crew on board, including three pilots. The passengers included one infant, seven children, 82 women and 126 men.

Air France confirmed that there had been 61 French and 58 Brazilians on board.

Among the other passengers were 26 Germans, nine Chinese, nine Italians, six Swiss, five Britons, five Lebanese, four Hungarians, three Irish, three Norwegians and three Slovaks.

Lightning theory doubts

The Airbus 330-200 had been expected to arrive in Paris at 1110 local time (0910 GMT).

It made its last radio contact with Brazilian air traffic controllers at 0133 GMT (2233 Brazilian time) when it was 565km (360m) off Brazil’s north-eastern coast, Brazil’s air force said.

The crew said they were planning to enter Senegalese airspace at 0220 GMT and that the plane was flying normally at an altitude of 10,670m (35,000ft).

At about 0200 GMT, the captain reported entering heavy turbulence caused by Atlantic storms, French media report.

At 0220, when Brazilian air traffic controllers saw the plane had not made its required radio call from Senegalese airspace, air traffic control in the Senegalese capital was contacted.

At 0530 GMT, Brazil’s air force launched a search-and-rescue mission, sending out a coast guard patrol plane and a specialised air force rescue aircraft.

France is despatching three search planes based in Dakar, Senegal, and has asked the US to help with satellite technology.

“The plane might have been struck by lightning – it’s a possibility,” Francois Brousse, head of communications at Air France, told reporters in Paris.

David Gleave, from Aviation Safety Investigations, told the BBC that planes were routinely struck by lightning, and the cause of the crash remained a mystery.

“Aeroplanes get hit by lightning on quite a routine basis without generally any problems occurring at all,” he told BBC Radio Five Live.

“Whether it’s related to this electrical storm and the electrical failure on the aeroplane, or whether it’s another reason, we have to find the aeroplane first.”

France’s minister responsible for transportation, Jean-Louis Borloo, ruled out hijacking as a cause of the plane’s loss.

‘No information’

Mr Sarkozy said he had met “a mother who lost her son, a fiance who lost her future husband”.

“I told them the truth,” he said afterwards. “The prospects of finding survivors are very small.”

Finding the plane would be “very difficult” because the search zone was “immense”, he added.

About 20 relatives of passengers on board the flight arrived at Rio’s Jobim international airport on Monday morning seeking information.

Bernardo Souza, who said his brother and sister-in-law were on the flight, complained he had received no details from Air France.

“I had to come to the airport but when I arrived I just found an empty counter,” he was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency.

Air France has opened a telephone hotline for friends and relatives of people on the plane – 00 33 157021055 for callers outside France and 0800 800812 for inside France.

This is the first major incident in Brazilian air space since a Tam flight crashed in Sao Paulo in July 2007 killing 199 people.

Source: BBC