RIO DE JANEIRO - Search planes scoured the dark waters of the Atlantic Ocean early on Tuesday, looking for the remains of an Air France jetliner that disappeared in a severe storm with 228 people on board.
The Airbus A330 went missing on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris and French President Nicolas Sarkozy said there was little chance of finding any survivors.
France and Brazil sent military aircraft and ships to try to find wreckage on high seas between Brazil and West Africa.
Brazilian carrier TAM (TAMM4.SA) said the crew of one of its planes saw bright spots on the surface of the ocean, but Brazil's air force said a merchant ship in the area found no signs of burning debris from the Air France jet.
We will search all night long and keep going through dawn, said Colonel Jorge Amaral of the Brazilian air force. We have to work as if it were possible to find survivors.
If none are found, it would be the worst disaster in Air France's (AIRF.PA) 75-year history and the deadliest since one of the company's supersonic Concorde planes crashed in 2000.
Air France flight 447 left Brazil on Sunday night and lost contact with air traffic controllers in the early hours of Monday morning.
It was carrying 216 passengers of 32 nationalities, including seven children and one baby, Air France said. Sixty-one were French citizens, 58 Brazilian and 26 German. Twelve crew members were also on board. [ID:nL1193930]
Tearful relatives in Paris and Rio were attended to by teams of psychologists.
One of the Brazilians on board was Pedro Luis de Orleans e Braganca, a direct descendant of Dom Pedro II, the last emperor of Brazil, a spokesman for the royal family told Reuters.
Executives from French tire company Michelin (MICP.PA), the Brazilian unit of German steelmaker ThyssenKrupp (TKAG.DE), and Brazilian mining giant Vale (VALE5.SA) were also among the passengers, said company officials and family members.
The Air France plane flew into turbulent storms four hours after taking off from Rio and 15 minutes later sent an automatic message reporting electrical faults, the airline said.
The company said a lightning strike could be to blame and that several of the mechanisms on the Airbus 330-200 (EAD.PA), which has a good safety record, had malfunctioned.
But aviation experts said lightning strikes on planes were common and could not alone explain a disaster. Sources with access to flight data sent to the World Meteorological Organization said two Lufthansa jets passed through the same area of turbulence on Monday without incident. [ID:nL1719357]
Experts also said the plane could have suffered an electrical failure, effectively leaving the pilots blind and making the plane more vulnerable in an area notorious for harsh weather.
Brazil's air force, which last had contact with the plane at 0133 GMT on Monday when it was 565 km (350 miles) from Brazil's coast, sent six jets to look for it and the navy dispatched three ships to help. Aviation specialists said it could take a long time to locate the black box.
France sent one of its air force planes from West Africa and several ships. It also asked the United States to assist in locating the crash site using satellite data.
Air France said the plane, which was powered with General Electric (GE.N) engines, went into service in April 2005. It last underwent maintenance in a hangar in April this year. [ID:nL146916] (Additional reporting by Eduardo Simoes and Alonso Soto) (Writing by Terry Wade; Editing by Chris Wilson)