Missing French Plane Hit Thunderstorms

Hope is fading for 228 passengers aboard Air France Flight 447, which vanished on its way from Brazil to Paris. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the prospects of finding survivors is "very small."

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. There is still no sign of Air France Flight 447. The flight from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to Paris disappeared early this morning after hitting stormy weather. Two-hundred-twenty-eight people were onboard. Eleanor Beardsley has the latest from Paris.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Air France Flight 447 was supposed to land at Charles de Gaulle Airport at 11:00 AM Paris time this morning. For a while, a delayed sign was posted on the arrivals board as officials contacted military authorities and kept searching for the lost plane. But it soon became clear that the plane would have run out of fuel, and the situation had become grave.

Unidentified Man: (unintelligible)

BEARDSLEY: At Charles de Gaulle Airport, those who had shown up to meet passengers were quickly whisked into a crisis center set up by Air France and the French government. Eventually, some details began to emerge. Air France CEO Pierre-Henri Gourgeon said the plane began experiencing difficulties four hours into its 11-hour flight.

Mr. PIERRE-HENRI GOURGEON (CEO, Air France): (Through translator) Around four in the morning Paris time, the plane entered a storm. About 15 minutes later, we received some automatic messages from the plane that the electrical system was failing.

BEARDSLEY: Gourgeon said that there was no mayday from the pilots, and nothing more was heard. His reference to electrical failure set off a fury of speculation in the media that the Airbus A330 had been struck by lightning. But aviation specialist Pierre Spallico(ph) says lighting is a common occurrence, and planes are well protected.

Mr. PIERRE SPALLICO (Aviation Specialist): (unintelligible) on the aircraft, there is no doubt about that. It's next on (unintelligible). Of course something went wrong. But, usually, an accident results from the sequence of errors, and not just one reason. So this could be one of the reasons that it's far too early to say.

BEARDSLEY: The French and Brazilian air forces are combing the waters on both sides of the Atlantic, but the area is vast, diminishing the chances of finding any trace of the plane.

At Charles de Gaulle Airport, a team of doctors and psychiatrists is helping the passengers' families. French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited them this afternoon, and then spoke to the press.

President NICOLAS SARKOZY (France): (Through translator) Everyone can imagine what a mother must feel like losing her daughter, or a young man his fiancee. This is the worst catastrophe Air France has ever known, and we're mobilized to try to understand what happened here.

BEARDSLEY: Officials say all possibilities are being considered, including terrorism. But so far, there's no evidence of anything but an accident. Up to now, the twin engine Airbus 330 has been a stalwart of transatlantic travel with an excellent safety record - only one fatal incident during a training flight 15 years ago.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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