- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 2, 2009

PARIS | Two Lufthansa jets passed through the same turbulence without incident Monday before and after an Air France plane carrying 228 people disappeared, setting off a frantic air-sea search for the Airbus jet that is presumed to have crashed in the Atlantic.

The search continued more than 24 hours after Air France received the final communication from the plane, an automatic message indicating an electrical circuit malfunction at 11:14 p.m. Sunday.

Air France said the Airbus 330 plane had hit stormy weather and “strong turbulence,” and a spokesman said it could have been hit by lightning.

If so, it would be the worst air disaster caused by lightning, according to the Aviation Safety Network, but most experts said such a strike alone was unlikely to down a modern jet.

In the worst recorded incident blamed on lightning, 113 people were killed in 1962 on a Boeing 707, also operated by Air France, the Dutch-based database organization said.

The plane was heading toward a notorious stormy patch, which shifts around the equator known as the Intertropical Convergence Zone.

It had been preceded safely on the same track 30 minutes earlier by a Boeing 747-400 heading to Frankfurt for Lufthansa, according to a source with access to data transmitted from jetliners for the World Meteorological Organization.

Neither aircraft reported any anomaly. Lufthansa declined to comment.

Lightning strikes are fairly common, but planes built out of metal such as the Airbus 330 are designed to be able to shake them off.

The massive current passes along the metal fuselage and is allowed to arc toward Earth without causing harm.

The idea is based on a principle known as a Faraday Cage, which protects passengers inside a mesh of conducting material.

The airline offered its condolences to the families of the passengers, making clear it did not expect any rescue.

“It’s a tragic accident. The chances of finding survivors are tiny,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy said at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport after meeting some of the relatives.

If no survivors are found, it will be the worst loss of life involving an Air France plane in the firm’s 75-year history.

Military planes took off from the island of Fernando de Noronha off Brazil’s northeast coast to look for the plane, and the Brazilian navy sent three ships to help in the search.

France sent one of its air force planes from West Africa and several ships. Mr. Sarkozy said Spain was helping in the mission and Paris had asked the United States to assist in locating the crash site using U.S. satellite data.

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