Mystery tonight still surrounded the loss of an Air France airliner which disappeared into the Atlantic with 228 people on board.
Experts said the Airbus A330 flying from Brazil to Paris this morning may have encountered massive turbulence or a huge storm.
But disaster struck so quickly that the crew were unable to send a Mayday message and the search for the wreckage and vital clues was hampered by its location, hundreds of miles from the nearest land.
The airline said it received an automatically transmitted message from the Airbus shortly before it vanished saying it had an electrical fault caused by flying through extreme turbulence.
Aviation experts said it must have suffered a “catastrophic” failure to have gone down with virtually no warning.
“There has been no receipt of a Mayday call. The conclusion to be drawn is that something catastrophic happened on board that has caused this aeroplane to ditch in a controlled or an uncontrolled fashion,” Jane’s Aviation analyst Chris Yates said.
“I would suggest that potentially it went down very quickly and so quickly that the pilots on board didn’t have a chance to make that emergency call,” he said, adding that the possibilities ranged from mechanical failure to terrorism.
Around 60 of the passengers, who included a baby and seven children, were French. Twelve of the dead were crew.
Air France Flight 447 left Rio yesterday at around 11pm BST and disappeared near the remote archipelago of Fernando de Noronha, around 1,500 miles from Rio sometime after 3.15am BST, and about six hours from its destination.
The head of investigation and accident prevention for Brazil’s Civil Aeronautics Agency Douglas Ferreira Machado said: “It’s going to take a long time to carry out this search. It could be a long, sad story. The black box will be at the bottom of the sea.”
An Air France spokesman said the plane may have been hit by lightning as it ran into strong thunderstorms, but experts said it was unlikely lightning alone could down a modern airliner.
Most, like the A330, are built mainly of aluminium, which is very good at dissipating the massive energy contained in a lightning bolt.
The company said “an automatic message was received at 0214 (0314BST) signalling electrical circuit malfunction.”
Air France tonight sent its “sincere condolences” to families of those on board.
Chief executive Pierre-Henri Gourgeon said the pilot, who has not been named, had 11,000 hours of flying experience, including 1,700 hours on the Airbus.
The company said: “The aircraft hit a zone of stormy weather with strong turbulence...
“The Brazilian, African, Spanish and French air traffic control centres all tried to make contact with flight AF 447 but to no avail. The French military air traffic control centre tried to detect the aircraft but did not succeed.”