These are the first shocking pictures of the Germanwings Flight 4U 9525 after it ploughed into an Alpine mountainside at more than 400mph.
The passenger jet carrying at least 150 people, including 16 schoolchildren and two babies, crashed in a snowy, remote section of the French Alps, sounding like an avalanche as it scattered pulverized debris across the mountain. All aboard were feared dead, French officials said.
A black box has been found at the plane crash site in the French Alps, according to the French interior minister.
The pilots sent out no distress call and had lost radio contact, France's aviation authority said, deepening the mystery over the A320's mid-flight crash after an 8-minute surprise steep descent as it flew from Barcelona to Duesseldorf.
The crash left officials and families across Europe in shock. Sobbing, grieving relatives at both airports were led away by airport workers and crisis counselors.
"We still don't know much beyond the bare information on the flight, and there should be no speculation on the cause of the crash," German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters in Berlin. "All that will be investigated thoroughly."
In Washington, the White House said American officials were in contact with their French, Spanish and German counterparts.
"There is no indication of a nexus to terrorism at this time," said U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan.
Early information suggests no New Zealanders were on a plane, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
A Ministry of Foreign Affaris (MFAT) spokesman said officials have been seeking information from the relevant authorities about the plane crash.
"At this stage there are no indications of New Zealand passport holders being passengers on the flight," the MFAT spokesman said.
MFAT would be monitoring the situation and seeking further updates.
Photos of crash site from the La Provence newspaper showed scattered black flecks across a mountain and several larger airplane body sections with windows, five in one chunk and four in another. France's prime minister said a helicopter crew that landed briefly in the area saw no signs of life.
"Everything is pulverized. The largest pieces of debris is the size of a small car. No one can access the site from the ground," Gilbert Sauvan, lawmaker and president of the general council, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, told The Associated Press.
Germanwings said Flight 9525 carried 144 passengers, including two babies, and six crew members. Officials believe 67 German nationals were on board, including 16 high school students on an exchange program from the German town of Haltern. Dutch officials said one Dutch citizen was killed.
The plane left Barcelona Airport at 10:01 a.m., then began descending again shortly after it reached its cruising height of 38,000 feet, Germanwings CEO Thomas Winkelmann said. The descent lasted eight minutes, he told reporters in Cologne.
Eric Heraud of the French Civil Aviation Authority said the plane lost radio contact at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, but "never declared a distress alert itself." He said the combination of loss of radio contract with a control center and the plane's quick descent prompted the control service to declare a distress situation.
The plane crashed at an altitude of about 2,000 meters (6,550 feet), at Meolans-Revels, near the popular ski resort of Pra Loup. The site is 700 kilometers (430 miles) south-southeast of Paris.
"It was a deafening noise. I thought it was an avalanche, although it sounded slightly different. It was short noise and lasted just a few seconds," Sandrine Boisse, the president of the Pra Loup tourism office, told The Associated Press.
Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet told BFM television he expected "an extremely long and extremely difficult" search-and-rescue operation because of the area's remoteness. The weather in the area deteriorated Tuesday afternoon, with a chilly rain falling.
Winkelmann said the pilot, whom he did not name, had more than 10 years' experience working for Germanwings and its parent airline Lufthansa. Airbus said the A320 involved in the crash was delivered to Lufthansa in 1991.
"We cannot say at the moment why our colleague went into the descent, and so quickly and without previously consulting air traffic control," said Germanwings' director of flight operations, Stefan-Kenan Scheib.
The aircraft was delivered to Lufthansa in 1991, had approximately 58,300 flight hours in some 46,700 flights, Airbus said. The plane last underwent a routine check in Duesseldorf on Monday, and its last regular full check took place in the summer of 2013.
Germanwings is a lower-cost unit of Lufthansa, Germany's biggest airline, and serves mostly European destinations. It has been operating since 2002, part of traditional national carriers' response to competition from European budget carriers.
The Germanwings logo, normally maroon and yellow, was blacked out on its Twitter feed.
The owner of a campground near the crash site, Pierre Polizzi, said he heard the plane making curious noises shortly before it crashed.
"At 11.30, I heard a series of loud noises in the air. There are often fighter jets flying over, so I thought it sounded just like that. I looked outside, but I couldn't see any fighter planes," he told the AP. "The noise I heard was long " like 8 seconds " as if the plane was going more slowly than a military plane. There was another long noise after about 30 seconds."
Polizzi said the plane crashed about 5-to-8 kilometers (3-to-11 miles) from his place, which is closed for the season.
"It's going to be very difficult to get there. The mountain is snowy and very hostile," he said.
The municipal sports hall of Seyne-les-Alpes, 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the Val d'Allos ski resort, was being set up to take bodies from the crash.
Police secure the Joseph-Koenig-Gymnasium in Haltern, western Germany. Photo / AP Police secure the Joseph-Koenig-Gymnasium in Haltern, western Germany. Photo / AP
Capt. Benoit Zeisser of the nearby Digne-le-Bains police said there were some clouds in the morning but the cloud ceiling was not low.
The safest part of a flight is normally when the plane is at cruising elevation. Just 10 percent of fatal accidents occur at that point, according to a safety analysis by Boeing. In contrast, takeoff and the initial climb accounts for 14 percent of crashes and final approach and landing accounts for 47 percent.
In a live briefing in Paris, French President Francois Hollande called the crash "a tragedy on our soil."
The last time a passenger jet crashed in France was the 2000 Concorde accident, which left 113 dead " 109 in the plane and four on the ground.
A helicopter takes off from Seyne-les-Alpes, French Alps as search-and-rescue teams struggle to reach the remote, snow-covered crash site of Germanwings passenger plane. Photo / AP A helicopter takes off from Seyne-les-Alpes, French Alps as search-and-rescue teams struggle to reach the remote, snow-covered crash site of Germanwings passenger plane. Photo / AP
Merkel spoke with both Hollande and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy about the crash, immediately cancelling all other appointments.
"The crash of the German plane with more than 140 people on board is a shock that plunges us in Germany, the French and the Spanish into deep sorrow," said Merkel, who planned to travel to the region Wednesday.
The A320 plane is a workhorse of modern aviation. The single-aisle, twin-engine jet is used to connect cities between one and five hours apart. The A320 is certified to fly up to 39,000 feet but it can begin to experience problems as low as 37,000 feet, depending on temperature and weight, including fuel, cargo and passengers.
Worldwide, 3,606 A320s are in operation, according to Airbus.
The A320 family also has a good safety record, with just 0.14 fatal accidents per million takeoffs, according to a Boeing safety analysis.