Two Navy men died when a Sea Harrier jump-jet crashed in Somerset yesterday afternoon. It was the eighth military plane to crash this year - and the second Sea Harrier.
Last night the Navy said the pilots' names were being withheld until relatives had been informed. The site had been cordoned off and a board of inquiry was under way.
An eyewitness said the Sea Harrier had narrowly missed a house and appeared to have ploughed through banks of trees and hedges before exploding. Debris was scattered over a 500-yard area.
The Sea Harrier, one of four T4 training aircraft from 899 Squadron, Royal Naval Air Service, based at Yeovilton, crashed into open ground at 2.40pm in the Blackdown Hills, four miles south-east of Wellington, near Taunton.
Local carpenter Stephen Holway, 28, had been driving home with his father when he saw the plane burning in a copse 300 yards away. "We thought the pilot might have ejected or something", he said.
"Then we saw someone's feet in a hedge. The hedges on both sides of the road were on fire and there were bits of metal everywhere and what looked like the turbine from the engine lying in the road."
A Navy spokesman would not say whether the plane had been flying low or high, or whether the pilots had managed to eject before impact.
A Sea Harrier crashed in the Adriatic on 13 February while taking part in air operations over the former Yugoslavia, but the pilot ejected safely.
The spokesman said the large number of crashes in the first two months of 1996 was a mystery, and that from 1985 until this year the number of crashes had declined. "There's no discernible pattern," he said. "We've got seven bases, seven different types of aircraft. Of the Navy planes, one was over the sea, one over the land. But it's a very bad start to the year."Reuse content