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Missing plane baffles aviation experts

With a good safety record and robust backup systems, the Airbus 330 wouldn't be easily downed by lightning, they say.

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As media speculation centers on lightning and air turbulence as possible causes of the disappearance of an Air France flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, many aviation analysts are puzzled by the circumstances of the missing plane.

The plane, a twin-engine Airbus A330-200, took off from Galeão Airport at 7:30 p.m. local time with 228 people on board. It was last heard from three hours later when it radioed to say it would enter Senegalese air space within the hour, according to a statement from Aeronautica, which is in charge of Brazilian air space.

At that point, the plane was flying "normally" at 35,000 feet. About a half hour later, Air France says the plane sent out an automatic message reporting "a loss of pressure and failures of the electrical system." Then silence.

The Airbus A330 has an excellent safety record – in fact, it's never been involved in a fatal commercial crash. One reason is the way it's designed: It has multiple redundancies that kick in if there's an electrical or any other kind of failure. And with authorities in France ruling out terrorism or a hijacking, many analysts say they are baffled by the plane's disappearance.

"These planes go through turbulence all the time and they do get hit by lightning – while it may startle the passengers it's not something that should create a problem that would cause a jet to stop flying. They're designed so things can fail and the plane can continue to fly without any problems," says Clint Oster, an aviation analyst at Indiana University in Bloomington.

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