Probe into RAF Tornado tragedy

A top level investigation was under way last night into the death of a civilian navigator who was killed after he ejected from an RAF Tornado over Norfolk.

A top level investigation was under way last night into the death of a civilian navigator who was killed after he ejected from an RAF Tornado over Norfolk.

The probe will focus on what happened in the seconds running up to accident when the man, a BAE Systems employee, left the Tornado GR4 while it was flying in an “inverted roll” during a routine test flight over Norfolk about 4pm.

The condition of the plane and its ejector seat systems - and how the pilot managed to land the jet safely at its base at RAF Marham shortly after the accident - will also come under scrutiny of air accident investigators and an Ministry of Defence board of inquiry.

A MoD spokesman said the man's body was found by an RAF search and rescue helicopter on an old airfield site near Egmere in north Norfolk about 45 minutes after the roll.

He was pronounced dead at the scene. It was unclear last night whether or not the navigator had a parachute.

But the BBC reported hearing a tape of the controller talking to the pilot, who says he did not see a parachute open.

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Alun Fishburne, programme director for BAE, said: “It is with great sadness that BAE systems confirms the fatality of one its aircrew.

“The aircraft was involved in a routine flight test. It has since landed at RAF Marham and formal investigations are under way.

“Next of kin are being informed and no further details are available at this stage.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with them.”

The MoD spokesman said the crew was carrying out a test flight and no other aircraft were involved.

He said: “The cause of the incident is under investigation and we will not speculate at this stage.”

Group Capt Phil Osborn at RAF Marham said: “We at RAF Marham work very closely with BAE Systems in the generation of Tornado aircraft.

“The death of a BAE Systems air crew is a sad loss both to the company and the station.

“Our sincerest condolences go to the family who are in our thoughts and prayers.

“A board of inquiry to investigate the cause of the incident will be convened and the results published in due course.”

BAE Systems holds a £130m contract for combined maintenance and upgrade work on the RAF's fleet of Tornado GR4 aircraft.

Police, including helicopters and scenes of crime officers, ambulance and a large MOD presence including search lights and a temporary marquee was at the site, near North Creake Airfield Business Park, Egmere, late last night.

A South Creake resident said the body was found close to a disused aerodrome on the edge of the village and that police had said they were looking for pieces from the aircraft.

“We've had helicopters circling around for much of the afternoon. The police spoke to my husband and said they were looking for bits and pieces from the aircraft.

“They were also looking for the navigator but they found him soon after. It's absolutely horrendous.”

Neither the Civil Aviation Authority nor the Air Investigation Branch was able to comment last night.

In October last year an RAF pilot and navigator ejected from their Tornado GR4 shortly before it crashed in to The Wash while on a routine training mission.

In May 2002 two pilots ejected when their plane crashed into the River Humber.

Marham is the RAF's largest operational base and is home to four Tornado squadrons. Crews from the base played an important role in both wars in Iraq.

The Tornado GR4, which costs tens of millions of pounds, is the RAF's primary attack aircraft.

It has a top speed of more than 1,400mph and is capable of flying at low levels.

According to an RAF Marham website, to eject, a Tornado crew member has to activate the ejection seat by pulling the seat firing handle connected directly to a breech unit under the seat pan.

The ejection seat is mounted on combined guide rails and a telescopic ejection gun unit, which in turn is attached to the aircraft structure.

The ejection happens in just seconds with the crew member propelled from 0-160mph in a quarter of a second.

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