PORT HUENEME, Calif. -- A jet on a military training exercise crashed into an agricultural field near a Southern California Navy base Wednesday, killing the pilot, authorities said.
The plane disintegrated when it hit the ground at about 5:15 p.m. as it was preparing to land at Naval Station Ventura County. The crash sent a huge plume of billowing black smoke into the sky 65 miles northwest of Los Angeles.
The pilot, the only person aboard, was pronounced dead at the scene, said Ventura County fire Capt. Mike Lindbery.
Nobody on the ground was hurt.
"Fortunately nobody was in that portion of the field," Lindbery said.
The plane, a civilian fighter jet contracted by the Navy, had just finished playing the role of an enemy aircraft in an offshore training exercise and was preparing to land at the naval station when it went down across the street in a field near the Pacific Coast Highway, base spokeswoman Kimberly Gearhart said.
"Amazingly loud. Then, it was just a huge fireball. You could see parts just go everywhere," an unidentified witness told CBS Los Angeles .
She said it was unclear whether the pilot reported any problems before the crash.
Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Allen Kenitzer said the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board were investigating.
The British-built, single-seat Hawker Hunter MK.58 was owned by Airborne Tactical Advantage Co. of Newport News, Virginia. The company, known as ATAC, provides aerial training to the military, including the Navy's elite Fighter Weapons School.
"The company has ceased flight operations during preliminary investigations," company spokesman Matt Bannon said.
Bannon declined to release the pilot's name but said he was a retired military pilot who was "extremely proficient and knowledgeable about fighter tactics and operating high-performance aircraft."
"Our heart and prayers are with the family," Bannon said.
The Hawker Hunter is a single-seat, swept-wing fighter and ground attack plane that was originally designed in the 1950s. More than 2,000 were produced. ATAC describes it as "one of the classic fighter designs of all time."
Wednesday's crash was the third near the Ventura County base in recent years.
In May 2012, another Hawker Hunter owned by ATAC crashed into a farm field near the base, killing the 57-year-old pilot. That plane had also been contracted to play the enemy in training exercises.
In May 2011, three members aboard a Boeing 707 tanker loaded with jet fuel escaped with only minor injuries when their aircraft skidded off the runway while taking off from the base and exploded into flames. That plane was carrying civilians and had a Navy contract to provide fuel transport.