(updated) Three people are dead and a fourth is missing after a US FA-18 fighter jet slammed into a densely populated residential neighbourhood in California on Monday, officials said.

Police spokeswoman Monica Munoz said a medical examiner was going through destroyed homes to determine whether there were more victims.

Fire spokesman Maurice Luque said one person was missing after the fiery crash near Miramar Marine Corps Air Station.

The accident occurred shortly before midday on Monday (7am AEDT on Tuesday) when the two-seater plane spiralled out of control and crashed into two homes in San Diego’s University City suburb, officials said.

The pilot of the aircraft, which had been taking part in a training exercise and was approaching the Marine Corps Air Station when it crashed, ejected safely and landed in the grounds of a nearby school.

Plumes of thick, white smoke billowed from the crash site, where dozens of firefighters battled to extinguish flames amid the charred wreckage of two homes in the leafy neighbourhood.

Two deaths were confirmed at a mid-afternoon press conference attended by San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, police, fire and military officials.

The bodies of the victims were found in the scorched rubble of the crash site.

Police later confirmed the third death.

The exact cause of the accident was not known but Steve Diamond, a former military pilot who saw the crash, said the downed pilot told him the plane suffered a mechanical problem.

The pilot was flying quite low in the moments before he ejected, Diamond said.

“Other than that, there was no overt indication of any kind of catastrophic failure,” he added.

The pilot appeared to be unhurt, he added.

“Turns out that after he extracted himself from the tree, he was OK. He was in good shape.”

John Kreischer, 62, told the Los Angeles Times: “It was chugging along with what seemed like one engine. Then I heard a roar of engine and all of a sudden, woop, dead silence.

“This guy could have turned it around and put it in the ocean,” he continued. “He was never going to make it to Miramar [Naval Air Station].”

Another witness told a local television reporter that the plane had spiralled out of control as in a scene from 1986 movie Top Gun, the hit film about a US Navy fighter pilot played by Tom Cruise.

“It just spiralled right out of Top Gun. It came flying down. My mother screamed,” the man said, reporting that he had seen the pilot after he landed in a tree at a nearby school playing field.

An F-18 military jet approaching a Marine base crashed near a busy highway in a densely populated San Diego neighborhood Monday, sparking at least one house fire.

The pilot ejected, but it wasn’t immediately clear whether the pilot or anyone on the ground was injured, officials said.

The plane crashed around noon Monday as it prepared to land at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, said Ian Gregor, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman. The crash occurred two miles from the base.

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