SAO PAULO -- A missing Air France jet carrying 228 people from Rio de Janeiro to Paris ran into lightning and strong thunderstorms over the Atlantic Ocean, officials said Monday. Brazil began a search mission off its northeastern coast.
Chief Air France spokesman Francois Brousse said "it is possible" the plane was hit by lightning.
Air France Flight 447, an Airbus A330, left Rio on Sunday at 7 p.m. local time (2200 GMT, 6 p.m. EDT) with 216 passengers and 12 crew members on board, company spokeswoman Brigitte Barrand.
About four hours later, the plane sent an automatic signal indicating electrical problems while going through strong turbulence, Air France said.
The plane "crossed through a thunderous zone with strong turbulence" at 0200 GMT Monday (10 p.m. EDT Sunday). An automatic message was received fourteen minutes later "signaling electrical circuit malfunction."
Brazil's Air Force said the last contact it had with the Air France jet was at 0136 GMT (9:30 p.m. EDT Sunday), but did not say where the plane was then.
Brazil's air force was searching near the archipelago of Fernando de Noronha, about 300 kilometers (180 miles) northeast of the coastal city of Natal, a spokesman said, speaking on condition of anonymity in keeping with department policy.
The region is about 1,500 miles northeast of Rio.
In Washington, a Pentagon official said he'd seen no indication that terrorism or foul play was involved. He spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the subject.
Douglas Ferreira Machado, the head of investigation for Brazil's Civil Aeronautics Agency, told Globo TV the plane could have been near the coast of Africa by the time contact was lost, based on the speed it was traveling.
"It's going to take a long time to carry out this search," he said. "It could be a long, sad story. The black box will be at the bottom of the sea."
Air France-KLM CEO Pierre-Henri Gourgeon, at a news conference at Charles de Gaulle Airport north of Paris, said the pilot had 11,000 hours of flying experience, including 1,700 hours flying this aircraft. No name was released.
"We are without doubt facing an air catastrophe," Gourgeon said. "At this time, the plane's fuel reserves would not permit it to still be in flight."
He said the plane was "very far" from Brazilian coast when last contact was made, without providing details.
Aviation experts said the risk the plane was brought down by lightning was slim.
"Lightning issues have been considered since the beginning of aviation. They were far more prevalent when aircraft operated at low altitudes. They are less common now since it's easier to avoid thunderstorms," said Bill Voss, president and CEO of Flight Safety Foundation, Alexandria, Va.
He said planes have specific measures built in to help dissipate electricity along the aircraft's skin.
"I cannot recall in recent history any examples of aircraft being brought down by lightning," he told The Associated Press.
Experts said the absence of a mayday call meant something happened very quickly.
"The conclusion to be drawn is that something catastrophic happened on board that has caused this airplane to ditch in a controlled or an uncontrolled fashion," Jane's Aviation analyst Chris Yates told The Associated Press.
"I would suggest that potentially it went down very quickly and so quickly that the pilot on board didn't have a chance to make that emergency call," Yates said, adding that the possibilities ranged from mechanical failure to terrorism.
Families who arrived to meet passengers on board were cordoned off, away from reporters, at a special Air France information center at the Charles de Gaulle airport. That center said 60 French citizens were on the plane. Italy said at least three passengers were Italian.
"Air France shares the emotion and worry of the families concerned," Barrand said.
The flight was supposed to arrive in Paris at 0915 GMT (5:15 a.m. EDT), according to the airport.
Air France said it alerted planemaker Airbus and France's civil aviation investigation office, known by its French acronym BEA.
If all 228 people were killed, it would be the deadliest commercial airline disaster since Nov. 12, 2001, when an American Airlines jetliner crashed in the New York City borough of Queens during a flight to the Dominican Republic, killing 265 people.
On Feb. 19, 2003, 275 people were killed in the crash of an Iranian military plane carrying members of the Revolutionary Guards as it prepared to land at Kerman airport in Iran.
Airbus said it was cooperating with transport authorities and Air France, but would not further comment until more details emerged.
"Our thoughts are with the passengers and with the families of the passengers," said Airbus spokeswoman Maggie Bergsma.
The Airbus A330-200 is a twin-engine, long-haul, medium-capacity passenger jet that is 58.8 meters (190 feet) long. It is a shortened version of the standard A330, and can hold up to 253 passengers. It first went into service in 1998 and there are 341 in use worldwide today. It can fly up to 7,760 miles (12,500 kilometers).
Rick Kennedy, a spokesman for GE Aviation, expressed doubt that the engine was at fault. He said the CF6-80E engine that powered the Air France plane "is the most popular and reliable engine that we have for big airplanes in the world."
He said there are more than 15,000 airplanes flying in the world with that engine design and GE Aviation officials were on standby to help.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy expressed his "extreme worry" and planned to visit the Charles de Gaulle airport later Monday.
Keller reported from Charles de Gaulle airport in Roissy, France. Associated Press reporters Emma Vandore, Laurent Lemel and Laurent Pirot in Paris and Marco Sibaja in Brasilia contributed to this report.