PARIS — An Air France passenger jet traveling from Rio de Janeiro to Paris disappeared after its electrical systems malfunctioned during a storm with heavy turbulence on Sunday evening, and officials said Monday that a search had begun for the wreckage in a vast swath of the Atlantic Ocean.
The plane, an Airbus 330-200, was carrying 216 passengers, nine cabin crew members and three pilots, the airline said.
The plane took off from Galeão Airport in Rio de Janeiro at 7:30 p.m. local time (6:30 Eastern time), and its last verbal communication with air traffic control was at 10:33 p.m., when the pilots said they would enter Senegalese air space in 50 minutes, according to a statement from the Aeronautica, the agency in charge of Brazilian air space. At that time, the flight was at 35,000 feet and traveling 520 miles per hour.
About a half-hour later, the plane encountered an electrical storm with “very heavy turbulence,” an Air France spokeswoman, Brigitte Barrand, said. The last communication from the plane was 14 minutes later — an automatic message informing air traffic control of an electrical-system malfunction, Air France officials said in Paris.
The chief Air France spokesman, Francois Brousse, said “it is possible” that the plane was hit by lightning, The Associated Press reported.
Planes have been brought down by lightning strikes in the past, though it is rare. In 1988, a twin-engine turboprop FA-4 was struck by lightning in the skies over Germany and crashed, killing all 21 people aboard. In 2006, a plane carrying Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, was struck by lightning and had to land, his spokeswoman said at the time.
Brazilian officials said the plane disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean between the archipelago of Fernando de Noronha, 186 miles northeast of the coastal Brazilian city of Natal, and Ilha do Sal, one of the Cape Verde islands off the coast of Africa. It is a huge area of ocean three times the size of Europe, officials said.
The Brazilian Air Force sent two planes to search for wreckage, an air force spokesman, Col. Henry Munhoz, told O Globo television in Brazil, and Brazilian Navy ships were reported to also be joining the search.
The head of investigation and accident prevention for Brazil’s Civil Aeronautics Agency, Douglas Ferreira Machado, told O Globo that he calculated that, given its speed, the plane must have left Brazilian waters by the time contact was lost.
“It’s going to take a long time to carry out this search,” The A.P. quoted him as saying. “It could be a long, sad story. The black box will be at the bottom of the sea.”
All jets are built to withstand severe turbulence, especially at upper flying levels, as well as to withstand lightning strikes. The missing aircraft was relatively new, having gone into service in April 2005. Its last maintenance check in the hangar took place on April 16, 2009, Air France said in a statement.
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. Ms. Barrand said that the pilot of the missing jet was very experienced, having clocked 11,000 flying hours, including 1,100 hours on Airbus 330 jets.
The plane was scheduled to arrive at Paris’s Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport at 11:10 a.m. local time. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France expressed grave concern about the missing airliner and sent his transport and environment ministers to a special crisis center set up at the airport, where relatives of passengers were gathering. The president was due to arrive at the airport later Monday afternoon.
Among the passengers were 126 men, 82 women, seven children and an infant. Brazil’s Civil Aviation Authority said the release of names has been hampered because many passengers did not fill out the form on their tickets with names and numbers of next of kin or contacts. Radio reports in Brazil said that 37 percent of the passengers were Brazilian and 34 percent were French, and that the rest were other nationalities. Those reports were not initially confirmed by the airline.
French and Brazilian aviation authorities are expected to lead the investigation, but the United States National Transportation Safety Board may be involved if the plane had American-made engines or had any American passengers on board.
No Airbus 330-200 passenger flight has ever been involved in a fatal crash, according to the Aviation Safety Network, though the seven-person crew of a test flight died in a June 30, 1994, crash near Toulouse, France, where Airbus is based. The test was meant to simulate an engine failure at low speed with maximum angle of climb.
In October 2008, an A330 operated by Qantas on a flight from Singapore to Perth had to be diverted for an emergency landing near the Australian town of Exmouth after suddenly losing altitude. Dozens of passengers and crew members were injured.
Air France said that people in France seeking information about the flight could telephone 0800-800-812. For those calling from abroad, the number is 33-1-57-02-10-55.