The aircraft, built in 2005, had been leased to XL Airways, a German charter firm.

Asger Schubert, an airline spokesman, said the two pilots in the jet were German and worked for XL Airways Germany.

Officials said the five other people on board were New Zealand nationals.

'Technical flight'

Regional officials said the plane was on a "technical flight" and was being serviced by a company based in Perpignan.

It had been undergoing servicing at EAS Industries in Perpignan and had been flying circuits for 90 minutes before it crashed, an emergency services spokesman said.

A major rescue operation continued into the night with a surveillance plane, two rescue helicopters and five ships scouring the seas around the crash site about 2.5km from the shore.

Six French aviation accident investigators and two from Germany were being sent to help an inquiry with experts from the French civil aviation authority and Airbus.

About 20 specialist frogmen were taking part in the operation.

The French navy sent ships to the zone in a bid to find the wreckage and find the black box flight recorders.