AN investigation has been launched after a light aircraft crashed into the sea near the entrance to Southampton Water.

Families soaking up the sun on Calshot Beach watched in horror as the privately-owned plane plunged from the sky and hit the water before flipping over.

Two people on board the aircraft scrambled to safety and were rescued by a nearby vessel after spending only about a minute in the water.

They are thought to have been saved by the plane's rocket-propelled parachute, which was deployed as the silver-coloured Cirrus SR22 entered a steep dive.

Daily Echo:

The Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB), part of the Department for Transport, is attempting to pinpoint the cause of the incident.

Experts will attempt to establish why the plane suddenly lost height as it flew from Dunkeswell Airfield in Exeter to Solent Airport at Lee-on-Solent on Sunday afternoon.

Last night an AIBB spokesperson said: "The AAIB has launched an investigation into an accident involving an aircraft in the sea off Calshot Beach on May 31.

"We cannot speculate on the cause of the accident as the investigation is ongoing.”

One of the vessels which took part in the rescue operation was the Calshot RNLI lifeboat. Its helmsman, Tony Carrier, is also a commercial pilot and used his experience to make the plane safe.

Members of Hamble Lifeboat crew said the aircraft landed in the sea just off Calshot Spit, leaving only its tail visible.

The crew, who were on routine patrol in the River Hamble, sped to the scene after their radio picked up "numerous" Mayday calls.

Daily Echo:

Aviation experts say the pilot was able to avoid what they described as a "potentially fatal" crash by deploying the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System (CAPS), which is thought to have saved more than 170 lives since it was first used in 2002.

A coastguard spokesman said: "We received numerous reports that a light aircraft had ditched into the water off Calshot Spit.

“It was confirmed two people were on-board the aircraft. Both were able to climb out of the aircraft after it came down and were then rescued by a nearby vessel.

“Hamble independent lifeboat escorted both casualties to Hamble Lifeboat Station. Neither required medical assistance and both were declared well by the South Central Ambulance Service. The Air Accident Investigation Branch have been informed."

The crash is not thought to have caused any pollution involving fuel or oil.