Runaway military blimp crash lands after wild chase by F-16s
Washington — After a four-hour jaunt across the skies of southern and central Pennsylvania, a runaway military surveillance blimp crash landed in a rural area Wednesday, ending a bizarre incident that raised concerns — and many smiles — across the Northeast.
Two F-16 fighter jets were scrambled from New Jersey to help monitor the giant blimp after it tore loose from a ground mooring at an Army base in northern Maryland and took to the windy skies, according to the Pentagon.
Before it crashed into a clump of trees, the blimp had caused havoc in central Pennsylvania. PPL Electric Utilities said 30,000 people lost power after the airship's tether, a 6,700-foot-long cable that dangled below it, struck power lines as it floated by.
At midafternoon, the rogue blimp was reported at about 16,000 feet and slowly descending near the small town of Bloomsburg, in central Pennsylvania, officials said. It landed in rural Moreland Township without causing any injuries.
Officials said the helium-filled blimp steadily lost altitude as it rode the winds, and was not shot down by the F-16s.
Earlier, the Federal Aviation Administration was working with the Pentagon's Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command "to ensure air traffic safety," a military spokesman said.
"We are safely separating it from other air traffic," Laura J. Brown, an FAA spokeswoman, said in a statement.
Officials urged the public to report any sightings of the 243-foot-long helium-filled blimp, which has no remote controls, and to avoid any contact with the long tether and mooring it is dragging along.
"We advise if you're in the local area and you see it, don't go near it and contact your local law enforcement," said Lt. Joe Nawrocki, a Northern Command/Norad spokesman said in a phone interview from Colorado Springs, Colo.
Officials said the blimp, which is used to conduct military surveillance over the East Coast, broke loose from a ground station at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Grounds early Wednesday afternoon on a windy, rainy day.
The F-16s were scrambled later from an Air National Guard base in Atlantic City, N.J.
Officials could not explain how the blimp, called the JLENS, or Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, broke away from the ground.
The 7,000-pound airship normally is anchored to the ground by 1 1/8-inch-thick Kevlar tethers, which also hold wiring for electricity. A ground crew of about 130 is needed to operate a pair of blimps around the clock.
The JLENS was designed to help provide the Pentagon with an early warning if the United States is attacked with cruise missiles, drones or other low-flying weapons. The blimp system is manufactured by Raytheon Co., based in Waltham, Mass.
The JLENS has been on a trial run at Aberdeen, an Army installation about 60 miles northeast of Washington, in recent months. The system is supposed to help protect the capital area and a surrounding portion of the eastern seaboard as it flies at 10,000 feet.
The U.S. has poured about $2.7 billion over the years into the problem-plagued JLENS program, which was the subject of a Los Angeles Times investigation.
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