The 21-seater Brazilian-built Embraer Bandeirante aircraft was carrying nine passengers and three crew from Leeds-Bradford Airport to Aberdeen when it came down alongside the A61 at Dunkeswick.
The accident inquiry, which was underway last night, is likely to focus on why the aircraft, operated by Knight Air, was flying during a heavy storm. Two minutes after taking off at 5.46pm, the pilot radioed the airport asking for permission to return before disappearing from air-traffic control radar screens at 5.50pm. The passengers, three of them women, were thought to come from the Aberdeen area and worked in the finance and engineering industries.
The aircraft plunged into a cornfield six miles north of the airport, disintegrating on impact and leaving bodies and fragments of plane strewn in a line of more than 300 yards.
Anthony Pickard, who arrived shortly after the accident, described the scene that met him as "utter carnage . . . it was an horrific sight. The plane was just in pieces, spread over a very wide area and there were bodies, some of them in pieces too, strewn all over the field."
He said the plane had sounded as if it was in difficulty as it passed overhead in a heavy storm: "The engines - or at least one of them - was revving very hard, like the pilot was having some sort of problems." The plane disappeared over a rise but then "there was just this tremendous bang, a huge explosion - and I knew it had come down".
At the nearby Harewood Arms hotel, staff said they had mistaken the sound of the crash for a roll of thunder.
Emergency services searched vainly in torrential rain and rescue efforts were made more difficult as the crash was 600 yards from the nearest road.
Inspectors from the Department of Transport air accident investigation branch arrived at Leeds to start an inquiry. The central issue will be whether the plane should have been flying in such poor weather.
The managing director of Leeds-Bradford airport insisted flying conditions for the air taxi had been "fine". Bill Savage said there was low cloud and rain at the time of the crash, but the exact situation would not be known until investigators studied Met Office reports.
The pilot would have been relying on instruments to fly. Mr Savage added that Leeds-Bradford had worked with Knight Air for several years, and "the airline's safety record has been exemplary."
The plane was on a scheduled daily service, operating from Southampton to Leeds-Bradford and on to Aberdeen, used mainly by business travellers.
It is understood that a similar aircraft made an emergency landing earlier this month at Finningley, a former RAF base near Doncaster, in South Yorkshire.
Knight Air, founded as a helicopter charter company in 1988, operates an air-taxi service from Leeds-Bradford airport.Storm dangers, page 2Reuse content