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ILLEGAL FLIGHT NEARLY ENDS IN TRAGEDY

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Federal authorities were trying to identify a plane that nearly collided with a rescue helicopter near the bottom of the Grand Canyon, a spokeswoman said.

Mallory Smith said a single-engine, low-winged high-performance plane similar to a World War II fighter or military trainer nearly hit a National Park Service helicopter shortly before dusk Thursday evening.The fixed-wing plane had the words "Fly Navy" lettered on the bottom of the fuselage, Smith said. She said that aircraft swerved and climbed in order to avoid a collision.

"The helicopter pilot said he mostly was looking for where he could land and that by the time he realized the danger, if the plane had not maneuvered to avoid him, he could not have avoided it," Smith said.

The helicopter was making an emergency evacuation near where the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers join. The medical emergency proved less severe than reported, but a 24-year-old man with injuries was flown out for treatment.

The fixed-wing plane was flying illegally about 800 feet above the Colorado River - at the same altitude as the helicopter but at a right angle to it, Smith said.

She said a second plane was following the private aircraft but at a slightly higher altitude so it didn't pose the same immediate risk of collision. However, it also was below the canyon rim, making its flight level illegal as well, she added.

The helicopter pilot and witnesses on the ground provided no description of the second plane except to say the two were similar and appeared to have been flying together, Smith said.

Federal Aviation Administration flight rules bar planes other than Park Service aircraft from flying below the canyon rim. The rules were adopted in 1987 after two sightseeing aircraft, a plane and a helicopter, collided in 1986, killing all 25 aboard.

The FAA will hold a public hearing Aug. 30 in Flagstaff in the latest round of a continuing attempt to improve air safety and reduce noise in and over the Grand Canyon.