Chilean officials have begun recovering bodies from the crash of a military airplane that went down in the Pacific Ocean with 21 people aboard.

Search crews have also found many pieces of the CASA 212 that crashed Friday afternoon after two failed attempts to land in difficult weather on the remote Juan Fernandez islands. Officials said they believe all aboard died.

The bodies of two women and one man were recovered Saturday. They have not yet been identified.

Chile's TVN national television said five of its staff members were among the passengers, including popular TV presenter Felipe Camiroaga.

Camiroaga, 44, worked for Television Nacional's Good Morning Everyone show and he was flying to the island to do a program on its reconstruction following the magnitude-8.8 earthquake and tsunami that wiped out its main town on Feb. 27, 2010.

Fans of the show lit candles and said prayers outside the TV station in Santiago on Friday night.

"We are extremely upset," said TVN executive director Mauro Valdes.

Crash 'a blow to our country'

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Chilean TV presenter Felipe Camiroaga, 44, seen here with Soledad Onetto during the 51th Vina del Mar International Song Festival in Vina del Mar, Chile, was aboard the Chilean air force plane that crashed. ((Jorge Sanchez/Associated Press))

The plane tried twice to land on the island but strong wind gusts buffeted the aircraft and it later was lost from sight, said Felipe Paredes, a local council member who was in the airport's control tower at the time.

The mayor of Juan Fernandez, Leopoldo Gonzalez, said some luggage has been found in the water about a kilometre from the landing strip and that officials are assuming there were no survivors.

Local radio quoted Gonzalez as saying a door of the plane and several knapsacks were found in the water.

President Sebastian Pinera expressed sadness over the crash, calling it "a blow to our country."

"In these times of anguish and uncertainty is when unity is most needed," he said.

Also on board was businessman Felipe Cubillos, a brother-in-law of the defence minister who had been working on post-earthquake reconstruction.

The remote Chilean archipelago, about 830 kilometres west of Chile's coast, is known for possibly having inspired the novel Robinson Crusoe.

The air force plane took off from the capital, Santiago, at 2 p.m. local time and lost contact with air control almost four hours later, according to a statement from aviation authorities.

"It's a difficult runway, but not impossible," Julio Subercaseaux, president of Chile's federal aviation authority, told state television.