A pilot was killed as he ejected seconds before a U-2 spy plane crashed in Northern California during a training mission, according to reports on Wednesday (21 September).

The instructor on board, who also ejected, survived, but no details were immediately released about his condition by officials at Beale Air Force Base, near Marysville.

Neither of the victims were identified as officials contacted next of kin. The cause of the crash is currently being investigated.

The U-2 Dragon Lady, assigned to the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron, went down in flames shortly after takeoff Tuesday (20 September) as it crashed in the Sutter Buttes, a mountain range about 60 miles (96.5km) north of Sacramento, reported KRCA-TV.

Witnesses said they spotted three parachutes — two with men, and one carrying some kind of equipment. Beale base commander Colonel Larry Broadwell said fellow pilots and support staff were emotional about the crash.

"We are saddened by our airman's death and offer condolences to the family and all who are mourning this tremendous loss," Air Force Chief of Staff General Dave Goldfein said on Twitter.

Broadwell immediately defended the plane. saying: "I would match the safety record of a U-2 with any other aircraft the Air Force flies," he said. "We are going to continue flying U-2 missions around the world and around the clock."

The Dragon Lady is a surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, capable of flying at extremely high altitudes almost twice as high as most commercial airliners travel. Because it is engineered to fly at high altitudes, it is among the most difficult aircraft to fly at low altitudes.

Investigators will search for a crash cause, but will also look into whether the ejector seats and parachute properly deployed, and whether the pilot hit debris after ejecting, Michael Barr, an aviation safety instructor at the University of Southern California, told the Associated Press. "If the chute didn't properly deploy, that would be fatal," Barr said.

In 1996 a U-2 plane from Beale crashed in nearby Oroville, killing the pilot and a female customer in the parking lot of the local newspaper who had just renewed her subscription.

The ejector seat had been deployed, but the pilot was found dead still strapped in some distance away.

Beale, which houses 4,500 military personnel, is home to the nation's fleet of single-seat U-2 aircrafts and the similar double-seat model used for training pilots. It is also the base for another training aircraft, the T-38 Talon, plus the RQ-4 Global Hawk, an unmanned surveillance drone.