TWO airmen are feared dead and two others are in a serious condition in hospital after their supersonic RAF Tornado jets crashed in the Moray Firth.

Hopes were fading after a huge search last night failed to find the crew of one of the near 1000mph £9.4 million GR4 jets, which apparently disintegrated on impact.

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The crew of the sister Tornado were winched to safety by a search-and- rescue helicopter and taken to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness, where they were understood to be seriously ill.

Last night the wreckage of one of the jets was brought ashore by lifeboat at Buckie Harbour.

Soldiers carried dozens of tiny red-coloured pieces of carbon fibre and metal that appeared to be all that remains of the plane to be analysed by investigators.

As flags flew at half-mast at the jets' base, RAF Lossiemouth, there was speculation the aircraft may have struck each other during the manoeuvres off the north-east coast.

First Minister Alex Salmond said: "This is clearly a very serious incident and my thoughts are with the loved ones of those affected.

"I understand rescue services have done all they can to help with the situation and offer my thanks to all those involved.

"The Scottish Government stands ready to offer any necessary assistance, and we will make a further statement once more details are confirmed."

The incident will raise fresh questions over the jet's safety record following four crashes since 2009, including three in Scotland.

Weather conditions in the area were said to be relatively calm.

The Wick, Invergordon and Buckie lifeboats were launched, supported by the Coastguard helicopter from Stornoway, after the alarm was raised just before 2pm. The search for the missing men was centred on the vicinity of the Beatrice oil field about 25 miles south of Wick.

Group Captain Ian Gale, Station Commander at RAF Lossiemouth, confirmed the loss in a statement outside the Moray base.

He said: "It is with great regret that I must confirm the loss of two Tornado GR4 aircraft, from this station, in an incident in the Moray Firth today.

"The circumstances remain uncertain but clearly this is a very serious incident.

"This incident involved four aircrew – all personnel from this station – and the thoughts of everyone here are with the families and friends of those involved.

"As I'm sure you will understand, this is an evolving situation and, as such, I am not prepared to comment at this time on their condition or speculate on the circumstances surrounding this incident.

"However, I can confirm two individuals have been recovered and two remain unaccounted for. Rescue operations are continuing and I would like to record my gratitude for the ongoing efforts of all those involved."

Group Capt Gale added: "I am confident that the Tornado aircraft on this station are operated as safely as they possibly can be. However, today's incident is a stark reminder that the military operations and training we conduct are not without risk.

"What happened today is under investigation and more details will be released by the Royal Air Force in due course."

Moray MP Angus Robertson, the SNP's defence spokesman, said: "They [the crews] will be known to many people at the base. Given all the facts aren't yet known, it will be doubly upsetting."

Last year a Tornado crew ejected safely as their jet plunged into the sea off Gairloch in Wester Ross, with an RAF inquiry praising their calm and professionalism. Weeks later, a Tornado crew bailed out after their jet had problems landing at Lossiemouth.

Last year an RAF inquiry published a report on a Tornado that crashed into the north slope of Glen Kinglas, killing its crew, near the Rest and Be Thankful in Argyll and Bute in July 2009.

Flight Lieutenant Kenneth Thompson and the navigator, Flight Lieutenant Nigel Morton, had flown into the glen, but it was not big enough for the jet to turn in.