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Three aircrew died Monday morning in a Whidbey Island Naval Air Station training exercise when their EA-6B Prowler jet crashed in an Eastern Washington field about 50 miles west of Spokane.

“It was just like a dark hole in the ground,” said Stan Dammel, manager of the Odessa Municipal Airport, who flew over the site Monday morning. “There was some debris around it but nothing that you could identify as an aircraft. It must have pretty much exploded as it hit.”

Navy officials said that the names of the crew would not be released until 24 hours after the notification of family members.

The Prowler, which first went into use in 1971, is an airborne jammer of radar and communications and long served as a key asset of the U.S. military. But the aircraft are being phased out, replaced by the more advanced EA-18G Growlers.

The Prowler was reported to have crashed at about 9 a.m. Monday, officials said.

The Navy informed Congress that the wingman of the crashed plane reported that no parachutes were deployed.

“First responders are on the scene and have reported finding partial remains of the mishap aircrew,’’ the Navy told Congress. “All three onboard are presumed dead.’’

U.S. Rep Rick Larsen, D-Lake Stevens, whose district includes the Whidbey base, said, “The thoughts and prayers of Northwest Washington are with the families of the aircrew who lost their lives. … This tragic crash is a painful reminder of the dangerous work that members of the armed services perform every day in service to our nation.”

The Spokesman-Review reported that a pair of Navy jets were operating in the area, according to Lincoln County Sheriff Wade Magers. The other plane reported the crash and then returned to the base as it was low on fuel.

The Prowler was “engaged in a low-level navigation training mission,’’ the Navy told Congress, and the cause is under investigation.

The EA-6Bs made their initial debut at Whidbey Island air station, with crews repeatedly serving in war zones, where the aircraft jam enemy radar and can be a critical component in U.S. airstrikes.

Built by Northrop Grumman, Prowlers were
deployed to Vietnam, and used in the Gulf War and Kosovo.

In the post-9/11 era, in recent years they took on a new mission of helping to jam signals that could trigger Taliban improvised explosive devices.

The toll taken in accidents is felt keenly in Oak Harbor, a town where many Navy retirees have opted to reside. And, over the years, crashes have claimed the lives of 46 aircrew whose names are etched in granite plates at the air station’s Prowler Memorial Park, according to retired Navy Capt. Tom Ford, who served as an electronics countermeasure officer aboard Prowlers and helped organize the memorial that was first dedicated in 1998.

“The community as a whole felt it was important that we establish something to let the families know that we did not forget their loved ones,” Ford said. “A tremendous amount of family members came out to see the memorial, and it helped bring closure to many of them.”

One former crewman, who lost his hand when he ejected from a crashing Prowler in 1992, said they could be tricky to fly.

“It’s big, not very aerodynamic and easy to lose control of,” said former Navy Lt. Vince Verges, who was a Prowler navigation officer for five years, in a 2001 interview with The Seattle Times.

Ford periodically flew on the aircraft between 1971 and 1989, and gave the Prowler high marks for its performance during his career.

“I thought it was a great airplane, and very safe,”
Ford said.

Between 1998 and Monday’s crash, there were no reports of Prowler fatalities.

But during the interim, there were a number of high-profile crashes, and concerns about aging parts as the wars after 9/11 placed new demands on the aircraft.

In 2001 two Prowler jets crashed, with crews able to eject safely each time. One involved a Whidbey air-station aircraft that crashed Nov. 15, 2001, on the Olympic Peninsula. The other, flown by Marines based in Cherry Point, N.C., crashed into the Atlantic later that month.

Navy investigators later cited a defective roller bearing as a likely cause of these crashes, and the part was replaced on other aircraft with bearings that met tougher standards.

A Prowler in 2003 shed pieces from its engine doors and heat shield as it flew near the Whidbey station; and cracks were discovered in wing panels, according to a report that appeared in The Air Force Times.

In a 2003 congressional hearing, then-Assistant Navy Secretary John Young said the Prowler “has served us well, however it has structural and engine challenges.”

In 2006, an EA-6B Prowler from the Whidbey Island base crashed near Pendleton, Ore., and it was one in a series of crashes that year that prompted the Navy to order a half-day grounding for all its aircraft for an internal safety review.

Information from The Associated Press is included. Jack Broom:

Hal Bernton: