A Runaway Military Blimp Is Floating Aimlessly Over Pennsylvania

The runaway blimp is currently being trailed by US fighter jets.
October 28, 2015, 6:09pm
Image: Raytheon

A massive military surveillance blimp broke loose from its tethers and is aimlessly floating above the mid Atlantic, according to the Associated Press. It is currently being tracked by military fighter jets.

Raytheon's 243-foot long JLENS blimp, part of a $2.7 billion program, was installed above Maryland's Aberdeen Proving Ground last year, with the idea of putting the mid-Atlantic under "persistent surveillance." The blimp is capable of seeing 340 miles in any direction and is ostensibly there to detect enemy missile or air attacks. In 2005, each individual blimp was slated to cost $180 million, though the project has cost $2.7 billion thus far and only two aerostats (stationary blimps) have been put into service.

JLENS aerostat detached from mooring station in Aberdeen Proving Grounds, MD. NORAD working interagency partners to address safe recovery.
— NORAD & USNORTHCOM (@NoradNorthcom) October 28, 2015

The project has been a colossal failure, as is detailed in a lengthy Los Angeles Times article: It's run over budget, has taken longer than expected to get up and running, and its overall utility is unclear.

I interviewed Timothy Carey, a former vice president for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance at Raytheon, about the project a few years ago.

"You can keep it up for virtually a month or so at a time with very little maintenance," Carey said. With no onboard navigational abilities, it's unclear how long the blimp will stay floating in the air.

Raytheon wrote in its JLENS frequently asked questions that the tethers breaking is not a worry, but does not describe the "number of procedures and systems in place" that would have prevented this:

In a Facebook post, Aberdeen Proving Ground notes, somewhat alarmingly, that "approximately 6,700 feet of tether are attached" to the wayward blimp.

"Personnel are responding to a tether break at the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Netted Sensor System (JLENS) location on the Edgewood side of Aberdeen Proving Ground. The aerostat moored at Edgewood broke free at around 11:54 a.m.; approximately 6,700 feet of tether are attached. Emergency personnel are tracking the aerostat which is still aloft and moving toward Pennsylvania.
Anyone who sees the aerostat is advised to contact 911 immediately; people are warned to keep a safe distance from the airship and tether as contact with them may present significant danger."

We've reached out to Raytheon, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Department of Defense, we'll update this story if and when we hear back.

Update: Gawker's Sam Biddle has tracked down a teen who has apparently spotted the blimp in Pennsylvania.

@samfbiddle @maddisonmall pic.twitter.com/qZhY7o02mx
— Harles (@harleighwelsh1) October 28, 2015

Update 2: NORAD says that the blimp has descended "near the ground," which we'll assume is just poor wording as other outlets and people on Twitter are reporting it's landed. Others are reporting that the tethers knocked out power lines.

Update: JLENS aerostat drifting northward & has descended near the ground. Anyone seeing the aerostat notify law enforcement & remain clear
— NORAD & USNORTHCOM (@NoradNorthcom) October 28, 2015

BLIMP DOWN: State Police report #blimp is down in Montour county near Muncy. We got this photo from viewer there. pic.twitter.com/9vXuAwJA1Z
— Jon Meyer (@JonMeyerWNEP) October 28, 2015

A Raytheon spokesperson told me this: "NORAD officials continue to work closely with interagency partners to address the situation. More details on this event are forthcoming."

Correction: This story's headline originally stated that the blimp in question cost $2.7 billion, when the entire program cost that much. As the Intercept reported last year, the per-unit cost of the blimps was supposed to be $180 million for 32 blimps total, but only two blimps have been put into service. We've amended the headline to reflect this.