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October 28, 2015

Massive DoD blimp breaks free, drifts over Pennsylvania

Blimp confirmed down, thousands without power after F-16 military jets dispatched to track unmanned balloon

It wasn't a bird, or a plane, or Superman.

It was the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS aerostat), a helium-filled missile detection system with powerful radars to guard the East Coast against airborne threats. 

Hovering over the skies of Pennsylvania on Wednesday afternoon, the giant unmanned, untethered balloon operated by the Department of Defense earlier came loose from its base at Maryland's Aberdeen Proving Ground, drifting north into Pennsylvania, Lancaster Online reports.

In this Dec. 17, 2014, file photo, U.S. Air Force Col. William Pitts stands in front of an unmanned aerostat that is part of a new U.S. military cruise-missile defense system . It is the second of two helium-filled airships near Baltimore to test a missile defense system on the East Coast (Patrick Semansky/AP). 

The balloon, measuring 34 meters in diameter, took flight carrying a 5,000-foot-long-chain with it through the sky across the Mason-Dixon line. According to Randy Gockley, director of the Lancaster County Emergency Management Agency, the blimp was spotted in Lancaster County around 12:26 p.m.

Two F-16 jets dispatched by the military to follow the blimp confirmed that it was near Reading by 12:57 p.m. and flew over Port Clinton, Schuylkill County, by 1:15 p.m. The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency said that the balloon broke from its tether and tracked north at an altitude of 6,000 feet. An initial report said the blimp was descending, but it was later recorded at 15,000 feet in altitude when it crossed into Berks County, Gockley said.

In a statement, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf said that the situation was being monitored in conjunction with federal authorities:

The Governor’s Office is in communication with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, the Pennsylvania State Police, the National Guard, and the appropriate authorities with the federal government. We are closely monitoring the situation, and we will work with the appropriate authorities to respond to any resource requests and assist in any way possible.

Around 2:20 p.m., reports surfaced that the blimp was at a very low altitude in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, where its chain was dragging and causing damage to infrastructure at ground level. Around 18,000 people in the area were left without power Wednesday afternoon after power lines were struck, according to CNN. Out of precaution, Bloomsburg University announced that it had canceled classes for the remainder of the day.

A student at Columbia-Montour Area Vocational-Technical School tweeted that the blimp came down at his school, knocking out power there. 

The aerostat system, developed by Raytheon, was designed to remain operational in the sky for up to 30 days. The company's website said it was highly unlikely the blimp could have broken free from its tether made of Vectran and built to withstand forceful storm conditions, including winds up to 100 mph. A military official confirmed that the JLENS, part of a multibillion-dollar government program, does have remote deflation technology, however the military did not attempt to use it. 

Pennsylvania State Police confirmed to CNN that the JLENS landed and was secured in Montour County. According to NORAD, the blimp came down in two parts. It was mostly deflated by early evening. There were no casualties or other damages. 

The cause of the blimp's detachment from its mooring at the Aberdeen Proving Ground base is under investigation.