France Plane Crash Site Is 'Picture Of Horror'

A German passenger plane carrying 150 people has "disintegrated" after crashing in the French Alps, with all those on board thought to have been killed.

The Airbus A320 came down in a remote mountain range and the debris of the Germanwings jet appeared to have been spread over a wide area.

Pictures showed many fragments as well as a wheel thought to be from the aircraft.

One of the so-called "black box" flight recorders has been found at the crash site. A rescue helicopter managed to land but could not find any survivors.

German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was flown over the the site and called it "a picture of horror".

A total of 144 passengers, including two babies, as well as two pilots and four cabin crew were on board the 24-year-old plane, operated by Lufthansa's budget airline.

There were believed to be 67 people from Germany on the aircraft, including 16 students and two teachers from the same school in the town of Haltern. The youngsters had been returning from a school exchange in Spain.

German opera singers Oleg Bryjak and Maria Radner were also on board. Ms Radner had been flying with her husband and baby, said a Spanish opera house.

Forty-five of the passengers are thought to be Spanish.

Around 10 helicopters and a military plane along with hundreds of police and fire officers were deployed and conditions at the crash site were challenging due to difficult terrain and snow.

French interior ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet said he expected "an extremely long and extremely difficult" recovery operation because of the area's remoteness.

As night fell, the search for the wreckage was called off and it will resume in the morning.

:: Follow live updates on the crash

And some Lufthansa crews are refusing to fly "for personal reasons" which has led to some flights being cancelled, the airline admitted.

The A320 jet was en route from Barcelona in Spain, to Dusseldorf, Germany, when it came down less than an hour into its flight at Meolans-Revels, between Barcelonnette and Digne.

Officials said flight 4U 9525, which took off at 10.01am (9.01am UK time), had started descending one minute after reaching its cruising height.

It then plummeted from 38,000ft to 6,800ft in eight minutes before crashing.

French aviation authorities said the plane did not issue a distress call and had lost radio contact with air traffic controllers at 10.53am.

"It was the combination of the loss of radio contact and the aircraft's descent which led the controller to implement the distress phase," a spokesman for the DGAC authority said.

The "distress" phase is the third and most serious of three stages of alerts used to help coordinate rescue efforts when an aircraft is considered in difficulty.

Gilbert Sauvan, from the local council, told Les Echos newspaper: "The plane is disintegrated. The largest debris is the size of a car."

Jean Louis Bietrix, a hiker who was accompanying a rescue team to the site, said: "There are no pieces anymore, there is nothing, there is nothing. The plane has totally disappeared."

Lufthansa said it was working on the assumption that the crash was an accident and any other theory was "speculation".

Weather conditions were calm at the time the plane came down but they later deteriorated with rain falling.

US officials said they did not believe terrorism was involved.

France's President Francois Hollande said: "It's a tragedy on our soil" while German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her thoughts were "with those people who so suddenly lost their lives, among them many compatriots".

She planned to visit the crash site on Wednesday.

Germanwings chief executive Thomas Winkelmann told a news conference the pilot had more than 10 years' experience, including more than 6,000 flight hours on A320s.

He said the firm would do everything possible to establish the cause of the crash.

The owner of a campground near the crash site, Pierre Polizzi, said he heard the aircraft making strange noises just before it crashed.

"The noise I heard was long - like eight seconds - as if the plane was going more slowly than a military plane speed. There was another long noise after about 30 seconds."

Captain Mike Vivian, former Head of Flight Operations at the Civil Aviation Authority, told Sky News the A320 had a relatively good safety record.

"Germanwings is a very competent company given it is owned by the main German flag-carrier and it flies basically short-haul routes," he said.

"The Airbus A320 is a successful aeroplane and has been around for over 20 years.

"It surprises me, that this aircraft flying from Barcelona to Dusseldorf, would have been at low altitude because nobody goes low in the Alps unless you are landing at Zurich or Geneva.

"So something catastrophic has either taken place or there has been a major emergency. If it was the second it would probably have been preceded or consistent with a radio call."