GWEN IFILL: We have a report from Carl Dinnen of Independent Television News about the Air France plane.
CARL DINNEN: This is the moment you think will never happen, when an ordinary airport pickup turns into a trip to a secluded room in the terminal to wait for news.
Today, none of the news has been good.
PIERRE HENRI GOURGEON, chief executive officer, Air France (through translator): What I can tell you is that, after crossing the stormy area, the automatic messages were sent by the airplane system indicating a malfunction within the aircraft. The way we interpret these messages is that the plane was in a difficult situation.
It probably came up against something very strong when it crossed the area of thunderstorms. And at this moment, the aircraft apparatus became disconnected, and then we received a message confirming this.
CARL DINNEN: This is what we know: Flight AF447 departed from Rio at 2200 GMT or 1900 local time. According to the Brazilian air force, the last radar contact was three-and-a-half hours later near the Fernando de Noronha Islands.
Air France say the aircraft crossed through a thunderous zone with strong turbulence half-an-hour later. The airline say they received an automated message indicating an electrical circuit malfunction 15 minutes after that. And that was the last that was heard from AF447. It was due to arrive in Paris just after 10 a.m. local time.
The French president visited Charles de Gaulle Airport this afternoon.
NICOLAS SARKOZY, president of France (through translator): We are facing an extremely dramatic event, a tragic accident. The chances of finding survivors at this hour are slim.
CARL DINNEN: This is the plane that disappeared. Air France said there were 12 crew on board and 216 passengers, including seven children and a baby.
The significance of the storm it passed through is not yet clear. One Air France source suggested a possible lightning strike.
But lightening strikes very rarely cause catastrophic failure to airliners. Normally, the lightening hits one extremity of the aircraft, travels along the fuselage, and exits at another extremity.
The A330-200 has been flying for 11 years. It has a good safety record and should have been well able to withstand a lightning strike. But a tropical storm can throw up many dangers to an aircraft.
DR. GUY GRATTON, Brunel Flight Safety Laboratory: Rain, hail, lightning, turbulence, strong up and downdraft can damage an aircraft.
CARL DINNEN: French investigators have now left to join the Brazilian military teams looking for whatever remains of Flight 447.