RIO DE JANEIRO: Brazilian military search planes found debris in the Atlantic Ocean yesterday that could be wreckage of a missing Air France flight carrying 228 people that disappeared in a storm the previous day.
Military planes saw metallic objects and plane seats 650 km north of the islands of Fernando de Noronha off Brazil's northern coast.
The area is near where the last contact was made with the Airbus A330 that took off for Paris from Rio de Janeiro on Sunday night and went missing in storms about four hours later without sending any distress signal.
"The plan now is to focus our efforts to collect the debris and try to identify if they belong or not to the Air France plane," Brazilian Air Force Colonel Jorge Amaral said at a news conference.
"We can't really say this is part of the airplane. The command center needs to have at least one piece of the debris with a serial number to confirm that it belongs to the airplane," he added.
The chances of finding survivors appeared close to nil and authorities were treating the passenger list as a death toll.
If none are found, it would be the worst disaster in Air France's 75-year history and the deadliest since one of the company's supersonic Concorde planes crashed in 2000.
Air France's Flight 447 sent an automatic message reporting electrical faults before it went missing, the airline said, but aviation experts said they did not have enough information to understand how the plane could have crashed.
Brazilian airline TAM said the crew of one of its planes saw "bright spots" on the surface of the ocean, perhaps caused by burning wreckage, early on Monday. Brazil's air force said a ship in the area indicated it had found no signs of debris.
No distress signal
"All scenarios have to be envisaged," French Defense Minister Herve Morin said on Europe 1 radio.
"We can't rule out a terrorist act since terrorism is the main threat to Western democracies, but at this time we don't have any element whatsoever indicating that such an act could have caused this accident," Morin added.
The flight was carrying 216 passengers of 32 nationalities, including seven children and one baby. Sixty-one were French citizens, 58 Brazilian and 26 German. Twelve crew members were also on board.
Senior French minister Jean-Louis Borloo said it was crucial for searchers to locate the black boxes, or flight recorders, which are programmed to emit signals for up to 30 days.
"This is a race against the clock," Borloo told RTL radio.
Distraught relatives of the flight's passengers were assisted by teams of psychologists in Paris and Rio.
An Air France spokesman said on Monday that a lightning strike could be to blame for the disaster, but aviation experts said such strikes on planes were common and could not alone explain the loss of a modern aircraft.
One element that baffled experts was the absence of any distress messages, either human or automatic, from the plane. No mayday message was picked up, nor were any signals received from emergency beacons that should have transmitted automatically.
"It would be very unusual to have all the communications systems fail at once," said David Gleave, of Aviation Safety Investigations, an airport and air traffic control risk management consultancy based in Britain. "That would tend to indicate that something catastrophic happened."
Brazil's air force last had contact with the plane at 0133 GMT on Monday when it was 565 km from Brazil's coast. The last automated signals were received at 0214 GMT.
Brazil sent six jets to look for the airliner and the navy dispatched three ships. Morin said France had sent three jets, one AWACS or airborne warning and control system, as well as two naval vessels.
The United States agreed to help locate the crash site using satellite data.
Air France said the plane, which was powered with General Electric engines, went into service in April 2005. It last underwent maintenance in a hangar in April this year.
(China Daily 06/03/2009 page12)