Both crewmen of a U.S. Air Force reconnaissance jet were killed today when their aircraft crashed in this north Yorkshire village, narrowly missing a school full of children and several houses.

Villagers credited the pilot with sacrificing his life to steer the plane clear of inhabited areas.

"I understand the pilot was wrestling with the plane to stop it from hitting us," said Pat Bertram, secretary of the 55-pupil primary school. "If that is right we owe a lot to him in Lealholm."

Horrified children watched the burning plane flash past the school at roof level 30 yards away.

Officials said the plane, assigned to the 1st Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron at Alconbury, was on a low-level training mission. They identified the dead crewmen as Maj. Donald Schuyler, 38, of Pacific Palisades, Calif., and 1st Lt. Thomas Wheeler.

David Ward, a lecturer who has been campaigning against low-flying exercises in the Esk Valley, said he was spotting aircraft when he noticed the RFAC Phantom, which he said appeared to stall when the pilot tried to accelerate.

"Flames shot out of the back and within seconds it was engulfed in flames and heading for a row of cottages and the school," Ward said. "Then miraculously he headed for the only gap in the village before crashing. CAPTION: Picture, A helicopter pilot, right, walks along trail left by a U.S. jet that crashed near a school in Yorkshire. AP