U.S. Navy pilot's remains found after crash in California's Death Valley

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES, Aug 1 (Reuters) - The pilot of a fighter jet that crashed in California's Death Valley National Park, injuring seven tourists on the ground, perished in the accident during training exercises through a canyon area, the U.S. Navy confirmed on Thursday.

The single-seat aircraft, an F/A-18E Super Hornet, was flying over Rainbow Canyon in Death Valley, about 130 miles (210 km) west of Las Vegas, when it went down Wednesday morning, the Navy said.

The pilot's fate was uncertain in the immediate aftermath of the crash, but a day later U.S. Navy officials said the aviator's remains had been located.

The fighter jet was taking part in a low-altitude training mission at the time, according to Lieutenant Commander Lydia Bock, a spokeswoman for the plane's home base, U.S. Naval Air Station Lemoore, north of Los Angeles.

Seven national park visitors from France who had stopped at the Father Crowley Vista Point overlooking the canyon suffered burns and lacerations from the crash, but their injuries were not believed to be life-threatening, park spokesman Patrick Taylor said.

Taylor said he did not know how the seven tourists sustained their injuries or how close they were to the crash site.

U.S. Navy officials did not furnish further details about the circumstances or cause of the accident, which they said was under investigation.

The Father Crowley overlook is commonly frequented by photographers who take pictures of military warplanes flying through the reddish-gray canyon from the vantage point of the canyon rim above the aircraft, Taylor said.

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The vicinity has been nicknamed "Star Wars Canyon" because military pilots are known for swiftly maneuvering their planes through its high-walled cliffs the way that fictional X-Wing starfighters flew through deep corridors of the enemy Death Star in the original "Star Wars" movie.

The spot is also a popular tourist stop for its scenic features and public restrooms located in an otherwise remote corner of the park, Taylor said.

Bock said the aircraft involved in the crash was part of the "Vigilantes" of Strike Fighter Squadron 151 at Lemoore, but the Navy was withholding the identity of the pilot until after next of kin were notified. She declined to say whether the pilot had ejected from the aircraft before the plane crashed.

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Rainbow Canyon, which lies along the western border of Death Valley in southeastern California near the Nevada border, is part of a larger corridor that has been used for military flight training since the 1930s, Taylor said.

He said Wednesday's crash was the first of a military plane since the 1990s in Death Valley, which ranks as the hottest, driest and lowest-elevation national park in the United States. (Reporting by Steve Gorman; editing by Bill Tarrant and Tom Brown)

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