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PARIS - An Air France passenger jet travelling from Rio de Janeiro to Paris "disappeared" after its electrical systems malfunctioned during a storm with heavy turbulence on Sunday evening, and officials said yesterday that a search had begun for the wreckage near a small archipelago off the Brazilian coast.
"We are very worried," said an aviation official in Paris.
"It could be a transponder problem, but this kind of fault is very rare and the plane did not land when expected."
The plane, an Airbus 330, was carrying 216 passengers and 12 crew members. The passengers were 126 men, 82 women, seven children and one infant. There were nine cabin crew members and three pilots.
Four hours after flight AF447 took off at 7pm local time on Sunday, the plane encountered an electrical storm with "very heavy turbulence", Air France spokesperson Brigitte Barrand said. Air traffic controllers lost all contact with the plane about 10 minutes after the heavy turbulence was reported.
The last communication was an automatically sent message informing air traffic control of electrical-system malfunction, Air France officials said in Paris. Officials said the plane might have been struck by lightning.
All jets are built to withstand severe turbulence, especially at upper flying levels, as well as to withstand lightning strikes.
Pilots are trained to try to avoid flying directly through thunderstorms, and instead try to find an opening in a storm front through which to guide their plane.
Barrand said that the pilot was very experienced, having clocked 11000 flying hours, including 1100 hours on Airbus 330 jets.
Officials said the plane dropped off the radar screens between the islands of Fernando de Noronha, the main island of an archipelago of the same name, and Ilha do Sal, one of the Cape Verde islands.
The Brazilian Air Force sent two planes to search for wreckage, centering their initial search around the island of Fernando de Noronha, an idyllic holiday destination about 200km northeast of the coastal Brazilian city of Natal.
The plane was scheduled to arrive in Paris at 11.10am yesterday morning.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy expressed grave concern about the missing airliner and was due to arrive at the airport last night.
Relatives of passengers have begun gathering in a special area set aside for them at the airport.
l No Airbus 330 passenger flight has ever been involved in a fatal crash. - Reuters