Debris sighted in hunt for missing Air France plane

Brazilian air force spots metal and seating after jet carrying 228 people disappeared

Aircraft searching for the Air France jet that disappeared with 228 people on board yesterday have found debris and plane seats in the Atlantic Ocean today.

Jorge Amaral, a Brazilian air force spokesman, said the seats were seen early this morning, but added that the authorities could not immediately confirm whether they were from the missing Airbus A330.

Small white pieces of debris, material that could be metallic and signs of oil and kerosene, which is used as jet fuel, were also seen.

There were no signs of life in the two areas, about 35 miles apart, where debris was sighted.

"The locations where the objects were found are towards the right of the point where the last signal of the plane was emitted," Amaral said. "That suggests that it might have tried to make a turn, maybe to return to Fernando de Noronha, but that is just a hypothesis."

He added that authorities would not be able to confirm whether the debris was from the plane until they retrieved some of it. Brazilian military ships are not expected to arrive at the area until tomorrow.

The debris was found about 375 miles north-east of the Brazilian archipelago of Fernando de Noronha.

French officials said bad weather made the search difficult, with heavy clouds forcing planes to fly very low over the water and limiting their line of sight.

As the search for wreckage continued, a minute's silence was observed at the French Open tennis tournament in Paris.

The Russian world number one, Dinara Safina, and the Belarussian, Victoria Azarenka, were among those who stood with their heads bowed before their quarter-final match at Roland Garros.

A minute's silence will be observed at France's friendly football match against Nigeria today, when the French players will wear black armbands.

The first commercial flight of the Airbus A380 superjumbo from Paris leaves today from Charles de Gaulle for Singapore Airlines, but the party originally planned has been cancelled.

A service for the families of the passengers will be held at Notre Dame tomorrow.

Earlier, the French environment minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, told France Info radio it was "a race against time" to find the wreckage of flight 447.

Borloo said the plane's black box would emit information for only 30 days and needed to be found as soon as possible.

He warned that the search operation would be extremely difficult because of the depth of the water and the strong currents.

Search and rescue efforts have also been complicated by uncertainty about the precise time the jet went down. The Airbus had been travelling from Brazil to Paris and ran into treacherous weather off Brazil shortly before it disappeared from radar screens.

Borloo said that when a passenger jet crashed into the Red Sea after leaving the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in 2004, the crash area was identified but it took 15 days to find the black box.

He added that there had definitely been extreme weather conditions between Brazil and France, but said this could not completely explain the crash.

The French minister for transport, Dominique Bussereau, warned that the investigation could be lengthy, saying: "It could be a few days, a few weeks or a few months."

Air France is considered to be one of the world's safest airlines and the A330 one of the most secure passenger jets.

The airline said the 12-member crew, including a 58-year-old pilot who had worked for it since 1988, was highly experienced. The two co-pilots were 37 and 32.

The families of passengers stayed the night in hotels at Charles de Gaulle airport, paid for by Air France.

Borloo said that relatives could eventually go to the crash zone if they wanted to.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, will invite the families of the passengers to the Elysée palace on Monday.

In Le Parisien newspaper Michel Pieraerts described how his sister, a 29-year-old engineer for Michelin, had been on the flight.

She had gone to Brazil on a 10-day holiday with her boyfriend, who is on a work trip to the country. He was due to return to France in a few weeks, so she flew back alone.

"My mother heard the news on the radio. She knew my sister was on that flight," he said.

"People are talking about a crisis support centre at the airport, but not for people who aren't at Charles de Gaulle. I'd like a doctor to at least talk to my parents by phone."

Flight 447 ploughed into thunderstorms and heavy turbulence four hours into its overnight flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris.

Fifteen minutes later the aircraft reported electrical faults through an automated message. Then contact was lost.

François Brousse, an Air France spokesman, said several of the plane's mechanisms had malfunctioned, preventing it from making contact with air traffic controllers. One theory was that it could have been struck by lightning.

If there are no survivors it would be the world's worst aviation disaster since 2001, and the deadliest in Air France's 75-year history.

Passengers on the aircraft included 61 French citizens and 58 Brazilians, as well as 26 Germans and at least a dozen other nationalities.

The 12 crew members were French. Seven children and a baby were aboard.

The passengers included three young women from Ireland who were embarking on careers as doctors, and were returning home after a holiday in Brazil with other friends who had graduated with them from Trinity College, Dublin.

Their party also included a woman from Wales. Three of the women were named locally last night as Aisling Butler, of Roscrea, Co Tipperary, Jane Deasy, of Dublin, and Eithne Walls, of Belfast..

Patricia Coakley, from Whitby, North Yorkshire, said she believed her husband, Arthur, had been on the flight after finishing a four-week stint working on an oil rig in Brazil.

"He was very excited about seeing his children and going on holiday to Corfu on Friday," she told Sky News.

"My only hope is I keep phoning his mobile … it rings, so it can't be at the bottom of the sea.

"I have three distraught children … we hope daddy will be coming home soon."


Angelique Chrisafis in Paris, Mark Rice-Oxley and Dan Milmo

The GuardianTramp

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