UPDATE: Eyewitness describes fireball as US F-18 from RAF Lakenheath crashes in Cambridgeshire Fens killing pilot
An American F/A-18 jet has crashed in the Cambridgeshire Fens this morning and the pilot has been confirmed dead.
Emergency services are at the scene on farmland at Redmere Fen, near Littleport, where eyewitnesses say the pilot appeared to steer the F/A-18C Hornet jet away from houses.
A spokeswoman from RAF Mildenhall said the fighter had gone down as it left nearby RAF Lakenheath bound for the US Marine Corps’ airbase at Miramar near San Diego, California.
A member of the public called police at 10.30am this morning, Wednesday October 21.
The spokeswoman added: “The Marine Corps officially confirmed the death of the pilot, but it is unknown at this time if the pilot ejected from the single-seat aircraft.
“The aircraft was transiting from Bahrain to Miramar in a flight of six aircraft when it crashed approximately six miles northwest of the airfield.
It shook all of the houses. It was so loud you could not hear yourself speak.
“The remaining five F/A-18C’s safely diverted to RAF Lossiemouth. The United Kingdom Coastguard is currently on the scene of the crash site and is in close coordination with US military officials.
“Our deepest condolences go out to the family and friends of the pilot. The cause of the crash is still unknown.”
The F/A-18s visiting RAF Lakenheath were from the US Marine Corps’ Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 232 (VMFA-232) nicknamed the Red Devils, whose aircraft always have red patches on their tails. It is one of the corps’ oldest squadrons, having been founded in 1925.
Col Robert Novotny,commander of the USAF 48th Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath, said on Facebook: “Friends, thanks for the private messages regarding the F/A-18 crash this afternoon.
“We are hard at work coordinating with the local responders and preserving all the evidence we can. We will have a statement shortly but it is so dynamic right now that we want to get some more facts. I know you understand.”
There are reports the plane encountered problems with refuelling shortly before the crash, but a spokeswoman for the US Marine Corps said she could not confirm this.
Residents living near the crash site described hearing a loud bang, houses shaking and seeing a fireball.
Karen Miles-Holdaway, 48, who lives nearby, said: “I was in my garden when I saw the plane going over. It was much lower than they usually fly at.
“I have so much praise for the pilot as I have heard he didn’t make it. He took the plane away from the houses which was brilliant.
“We are just very grateful to him.”
Patrick Turner, 72, who lives a few hundred yards from the scene, said: “There was a hell of a bang when it hit the ground. It shook all of the houses. It was so loud you could not hear yourself speak.
“I went outside and saw the plane - it was a huge fireball.”
His brother Anthony Turner, 73, a farmer, said: “I certainly heard it, it shook the house, my brother was outside at the time.
“My brother was outside and he said there was a lot of smoke and a ball of fire.
“It was just behind the buildings, we were lucky it just missed them, we often walk round there.
“We get American planes flying over is day and night sometimes but we don’t take much notice.
“I felt the house shake today that’s how I knew it happened.”
West Suffolk MP Matthew Hancock said this afternoon: “I am very sorry to hear of the aircraft crash near RAF Lakenheath and the death of its pilot. Those who fly from RAF Lakenheath serve our country as well as the United States, keeping us safe and free.
“Local residents strongly support the American military at Lakenheath and nearby Mildenhall. There is a tight knit community on the base and our thoughts go out them, and to friends and relatives of the pilot.”
An MoD spokeswoman said an investigation will be carried out by the UK Defence Safety Authority in collaboration with US authorities.
Matthew Barzun, the US ambassador to Britain, tweeted: “We’re grateful for everyone’s concern.”
A Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue spokesman said: “We were mobilised to a crash near Ely just after 10.30am. Two pumps from Littleport and Ely are in attendance but not fire-fighting action has yet taken place.”
A spokesman for the East of England Ambulance Service confirmed they were called to the incident at 10.33am.
The $57 million jet is 60ft long and powered by two jet engines. It can carry a mix of missiles and bombs but crash jet was unarmed. The F/A-18 originally entered service in 1978 and they serve with several air forces.