September 13, 2001 11:00 pm

By The Observer

What turned out to be a misunderstanding almost caused a major incident Thursday in the skies over La Grande.

Air Force fighter planes, reportedly F-15s, were scrambled and were en route to Union County Airport about 1:30 p.m. after the Air Force reported that a plane had disregarded orders.

The plane, however, was being flown by a helicopter pilot on contract to the Forest Service to fight fires. The pilot was going on duty at a heliport near Ukiah, according to a county airport spokesman.

A ban on all flights except those involved in fighting fires in the West has been in effect since Tuesdays attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The airport spokesman said the pilot used the proper codes and continued to try to communicate with the Air Force. The Air Force later apologized for the misunderstanding, the spokesman said.

According to a police report, the Air Force asked the Union County Sheriffs Department for assistance in the matter.