The search zone for the missing Air France A330-200 is now in darkness. The airline has ‘lost hope’ for the 228 people on board AF 447, and investigators are looking for clues in a set of automated status messages that indicated a bewildering flurry of electrical systems faults that are the last information received from the flight.

The graphic above shows the cloud cover at 0950 Eastern Australian time and the zone of seasonal and often severely turbulent weather the flight was crossing is clearly visible.

The topography which includes the lights of Rio de Janeiro from which it departed and Paris where it was headed and level of moonlight over which the satellite cloud scan is projected are computer generated.

Among the first things to happen when an airliner goes missing like the Air France flight late yesterday afternoon our time and in the early morning in darkness Brazilian time is that other airlines flying the same type, an A330-200, try to pick up any clues that may affect their own operations.

That anxiety sets in long before anything can really be known. The A330 family, and the A330-200 variant, flies in its hundreds for many carriers, including more than 20 of that family in service with Qantas and Jetstar.

It is now clear from reports in France that Air France realised the flight had met with disaster about four hours after it left Rio and its operations staff had scanned with dismay the messages confirming catastrophic electrical faults on board.

The airline then worked for hours contacting relatives prior to the scheduled early morning arrival in Paris, knowing of course that there would be no arrival.

All that is known with certainty so far is that there were electrical problems of unprecedented extent followed, obviously, by a loss of control. Whether or not the jet was actually struck by lightning is not known, and jets get struck by lightning with great frequency, and often violence, and are designed to be lightning proof to very rigorous standards.

The same point can be made about the high level turbulence that is both seasonal and widespread in that area. There were many, many flights between South America and Europe in the general area that night.

Something else is thus missing from the picture, and finding physical clues as to what additionally went so terribly wrong could prove incredibly difficult given the search zone.

Speculation so soon after an accident is almost invariably wrong. Without better information it will prove to be somewhere between between hopelessly incomplete and totally wrong.

Qantas, for example, will want to know if the air data inertial reference units or ADIRUs on the Air France jet were of the same type that failed and caused some serious control incidents with its A330-300s, including the incident that hurt more than 100 passengers and crew prior to an emergency landing at Learmonth in Western Australia on 7 October last year.

That incident is still under intensive investigation by the ATSB, Airbus, and French and US authorities. But even if it was the same unit, it would be unduly speculative to read much into that coincidence at this stage.

Operators of A330s will of course not really sleep well until they can be sure of the nature of the mishap, no matter how confident they are of the airliner’s integrity. This would be true of any type of jet. And any competent airline, of which Air France is one.

So now the searching and waiting goes on. A jet with 228 people on board has undoubtedly crashed somewhere in the mid Atlantic. That is all we can say with certainty.

Note: This is a comprehensive update of the earlier post ‘When a jet goes missing’ from late last night. The best general media updates are those generated in Paris where the UK papers keep bureaus.

A time line can be found here at The Guardian online.

Breaking news resources include The Telegraph and in French the preview pages of Le Monde’s on-line subscriber site has updated summaries linked Crikey style to official statements as they are released here. If the permalink are changed, as often happens, edit the link to the home page, such as lemonde.fr or guardianunlimited.co.uk.
Just received at 3 pm unofficial but highly credible advice that the type of ADIRU being investigated in relation to the Qantas A330 accident at Learmonth last October is of different design and manufacture to that fitted to the missing Air France jet.