WASHINGTON — An unmanned Army surveillance blimp broke loose from its ground tether at a military base in Maryland on Wednesday and drifted over central Pennsylvania as two Air Force fighter jets tracked it. The blimp’s long tether snapped power lines, causing outages.
A North American Aerospace Defense Command spokesman confirmed to CBS News that the blimp landed in Montour County, CBS News national security correspondent David Martin reports.
NORAD said the blimp detached from its station at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, at about 12:20 p.m., and initially traveled north at an altitude of about 16,000 feet.
Martin reports National Guard helicopters were scrambled along the blimp’s projected route to secure the crash site and all of the technology on board the blimp when it finally came down.
State police in Columbia County, Pennsylvania, confirmed they had been getting 911 calls about blimp sightings, but they could not provide additional details.
Witnesses reported seeing the blimp drifting between Jerseytown and Turbotville, a sparsely area north of Harrisburg. Its tether was snapping power lines.
Martin reports that a NORAD spokesman said they did nothing to bring the blimp down. They do not know why it deflated. There is an auto-deflate mechanism, but the spokesman didn’t know if that was responsible.
At the time it broke away it was operating within permitted weather minimums.
The second blimp, which operates in tandem with the one that broke away, has been grounded pending outcome of investigation, Martin reports.
The local electric utility, PPL, reported about 20,000 customers without power in the area, although it was unclear how many could be attributed to the blimp. Bloomsburg University canceled classes, citing a “widespread power outage.”
PPL said in a statement that as of 3:45 p.m., Wednesday, about 17,800 customers were without power in Columbia County, with another 9,000 out in Schuylkill County.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf released a statement in regards to the blimp knocking out power.
“The tether attached to the aircraft caused widespread power outages across Pennsylvania. PPL Electric reports that the damage appears most extensive in Columbia and Schuylkill counties,” the statement read. “PEMA has been in contact with PPL and continues monitor power outages along the path of the balloon.”
Some who live in Aberdeen, like Tom Neuberger, have long worried that the blimp would get loose and crash into their neighborhood.
“Fly it into a hurricane, but don’t fly it over our heads. We have children, retirees, a college, a community,” he said to CBS News’ Chip Reid. “We want to be safe from this kind of military mismanagement.”
The blimp is the kind used extensively in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to provide ground surveillance around U.S. bases and other sensitive sites.
“My understanding is, from having seen these break loose in Afghanistan on a number of occasions, we could get it to descend and then we’ll recover it and put it back up,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in a brief exchange with reporters at the Pentagon. “This happens in bad weather.”
Carter did not say what the two F-16 fighters tracking the runaway blimp might be asked to do or whether he considered it a threat to aviation.
The F-16s were launched from the Atlantic City Air National Guard Base in New Jersey, according to the NORAD statement.
FAA officials were working with the military to ensure air traffic safety in the area.
The aircraft is known as a Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, or JLENS, and can be used as part of a missile defense system.
It was not immediately clear how the blimp came loose.
As CBS News correspondent Chip Reid reported in February, the type of unmanned blimp is nearly as long as a football field.
It is being tested for permanent duty scanning the sky for incoming cruise missiles, Reid reported.
The state-of-the-art radar housed in the bubble underneath the unmanned dirigible has a range of 340 miles — from Boston to North Carolina.