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One pilot dead, a second injured in U-2 spy plane crash in rural Northern California

One pilot was killed and another injured when a U-2 spy plane crashed in Northern California shortly after takeoff Tuesday morning, according to a U.S. Air Force official.

The pilots ejected shortly after takeoff from Beale Air Force Base and moments before the aircraft crashed into a rural area north of Sacramento, according to the Air Force.

Initially, the Air Force reported the crew members had “safely ejected” and were awaiting recovery.

Almost four hours after the crash, however, air combat command tweeted, “There is no official confirmation of status of U-2 pilots.”

Shortly before 1 p.m., Sgt. Charity Barrett of Beale Air Force Base confirmed one pilot’s death. The extent of injuries suffered by the second pilot was unclear.

“There’s always inherent dangers in an ejection. The technology is fantastic, but it’s not foolproof,” Col. Larry Broadwell, the base commander, said at an afternoon news conference. “I would match the safety and maintenance record of the U-2 with any of the apparatus the Air Force flies.”

The crash occurred about 9 a.m., and the pilots were participating in a training mission, according to the Air Force. 

“Everything about the flight today was routine — nothing out of the ordinary as I was told,” Broadwell said.

The single-engine, high-altitude surveillance jet is from the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base and was assigned to the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron.

Photographs from the scene showed the tail of the aircraft sticking out of a scorched hillside with wreckage scattered around it.

According to the base website, the wing is “responsible for providing ... timely, reliable, high-quality, high-altitude reconnaissance products.” The wing is equipped with U-2 planes as well as RQ-4 and MC-12 reconnaissance aircraft.

The last time a U-2 Dragon Lady crashed in the area was Aug. 7, 1996, in Oroville.

The spy plane crashed into a parking lot outside the offices of the Oroville Mercury Register, killing the pilot and a woman on the ground.

Capt. Randy Roby, an instructor assigned to Beale Air Force Base, was piloting the plane over the city on a routine mission when it burst into flames, then crashed.  

Jerri Vering of Oroville was leaving the newspaper’s office when the plane’s wreckage hit and killed her.

The Beale air base is home to America's fleet of high-altitude spy planes, and its motto is emblazoned on signs: “In God We Trust. All Others We Monitor.”

The U-2 flies to 70,000 feet — higher than any other U.S. military aircraft. It’s also among the oldest. The spy plane was first designed during the Eisenhower administration to breach the Iron Curtain and, as engineers said, snap “picture postcards for Ike” of hidden military strongholds in the Soviet Union. There have been 33 updated versions of the jet that still flies today.

The U-2 is perhaps best known for the plane that was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960 and the subsequent capture of pilot Francis Gary Powers. He was traded for a Soviet spy nearly two years later, but the embarrassing incident convinced U.S. officials that manned spy planes posed too many risks.

The military now relies more heavily on drones for reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering. The U-2 is set to be retired by 2019.

Times staff writer W.J. Hennigan contributed to this article.

The article will be updated as new information becomes available.

veronica.rocha@latimes.com

For breaking news in California, follow VeronicaRochaLA on Twitter.

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UPDATES:

4:25 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from the base commander about the aircraft and training mission.

12:55 p.m.: This article was updated with an official confirming the death of a pilot.

12:45 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information on the pilots’ condition.

12:20 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information on the aircraft’s unit and timing of the crash.

11:25 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details about the air base and aircraft.

11:05 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details about the crash.

This article was originally published at 10:40 a.m.

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