An RAF engineer was killed on Tuesday when a Red Arrows jet crashed shortly after take-off at RAF Valley in north Wales.
The pilot survived the crash and is believed to have ejected seconds before the Hawk aircraft hit the ground at the base in Anglesey, bursting into a ball of flames.
A plume of black smoke could be seen billowing over the base as witnesses described seeing the aircraft bank sharply and appear to loop before hurtling to the ground.
It was the third Red Arrows fatality in seven years following two in 2011. All three have involved the Hawk T1, an ageing model due to be replaced by 2030.
Last month, ejector seat manufacturer Martin-Baker Aircraft Company was fined £1.1 million after a breach of health and safety law led to the death of Red Arrows pilot Flt Lt Sean Cunningham.
Several witnesses to yesterday’s crash, which occurred shortly after the plane took off at around 1.30pm, described seeing only one person eject from the aircraft. If the engineer did not eject, the investigation is likely to focus on why that did not happen.
Prior to the crash, the team had completed routine training at RAF Valley and was headed back to the Red Arrows base at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire.
Onlookers described seeing the jet appear to loop before banking steeply and hitting the runway, transforming into a fireball.
Many saw one multi-coloured parachute emerge some 200 yards from the ground.
Unconfirmed reports suggested it was Red 3, whose pilot is 35-year-old David Stark, one of the Red Arrows new recruits.
Rob Jones, manager of nearby Anglesey golf club, said: “I heard an almighty bang. It sounded like a cannon going off – I don’t know if that’s from the ejector seat – but some of the golfers saw a parachute.
“I went to the door and all I could see was plumes of black smoke coming up.”
Peter Glover, 66, from Stockport, said: “There was a huge bang. The ground shook.
“It just hit the ground in a massive black ball and it set on fire.”
Sian Williams, 18, who was watching from nearby Rhosneigr train station said: ““From what I remember it did a loop and flew towards the runway and looked like it was about to land.
“As I was looking I saw the parachute of one pilot open and then the plane hit the runway with a bang and a crumbling noise.
“Then it just burned bright orange and there was smoke everywhere.”
The on-base fire engine drove out to the wreckage instantly, putting the flames out before an air ambulance arrived.
North Wales Police will lead a full investigation into the crash.
The RAF appealed to the public to send in any information or pictures of the incident, urging them not to share them on social media.
A spokesman said: “It is with great sadness that the MoD must confirm the death of an engineer from the RAF Aerobatics Team (the Red Arrows) in a tragic accident today.
“The serviceman’s family have been informed and have asked for a period of grace before further details are released. The pilot of the aircraft survived the incident and is currently receiving medical care.”
Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier, head of the RAF, said: “This tragic accident is a reminder that we must never take for granted the risks our people take in the service of our country. My deepest thoughts are with the friends and family of those involved at this terrible time.”
The Red Arrows had been training on RAF Valley’s flight simulators ahead of the forthcoming display season.
The world-famous aerobatic team performs stunts and daredevil displays, and flies the distinctive Hawk fast-jets.
All Red Arrows pilots have flown operationally in frontline aircraft before joining the display team.
Flt Lt Stark joined the team late last year after passing a tough recruitment process and was undertaking seven months of training.
He was born in Geneva before moving to the UK, where he was educated at the independent Nottingham High School and joined the RAF in 2005. He said last year that it was his “childhood dream” to join the Red Arrows and that he could not wait to start. TGN