A blimp associated with NORAD’s surveillance of the East Coast has become untethered from its mooring in Maryland and is now flying over Pennsylvania, according to NORAD spokesman Lt. Joe Mavrocki.
A cable connected to the untethered JLENS blimp is dragging along the ground in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, and causing massive power outages, Columbia County Department of Public Safety Director Fred Hunsinger said. A military official told CNN that the blimp is believed to be very low to the ground.
Hunsinger went on to say that there are no reports of injuries or deaths, but the dragging of the blimp’s cable has school leaders taking precautions to protect children as classes begin to let out for the day.
There are currently more than 20,000 without power in the Bloomsburg area, according to Joe Nixon with PPL Electric. Nixon said they have “reports that the blimp hit power lines in the Bloomsburg area” and that they are going to the scene to investigate.
Nixon noted it is rainy and windy in the area.
There are no reports of threats to the safety of any city-centers or populated areas, but NORAD is advising citizens that if they see the aircraft to stay far away from it.
Two F-16s scrambled from the New Jersey National Guard are tracking the JLENS aerostat, a Pentagon official said, after the aircraft came loose from its mooring station in Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.
JLENS, which is short for Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, is a system of two aerostats, or tethered airships, that float 10,000 feet in the air. The helium-filled aerostats, each nearly as long as a football field, carry powerful radars that can protect a territory roughly the size of Texas from airborne threats.
The military is reaching out to the State Police and National Guard to secure the site where it comes down.
The FAA is also tracking the balloon to keep it safely separated from other air traffic.
NORAD spokesperson Mike Kucharek said that it is not yet clear why the blimp got loose, and that is part of an investigation.
Asked whether the blimp could explode, Kucharek said helium has a flammable quality but that as the pressure inside the aerostat dissipates, the flammability decreases, the pressure is dissipating.
It does, however, have sensitive electronics on board: surveillance radar, which can spot fast-moving incoming aircraft or other projectiles.
Shortly after news broke about the blimp, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said state officials were “closely monitoring” the situation.
“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,” the statement said.
The military is planning to scramble helicopters that can land next to the JLENS when it comes down in order to secure it.
The military official said the JLENS has remote deflation technology, but it may not be working. They provide 360 degrees of defensive radar coverage and can detect and track objects like missiles and manned and unmanned aircraft from up to 340 miles away.
JLENS can also remain aloft and operational for up to 30 days at a time.
The two blimps, put in the air to better protect the Washington, D.C., area from cruise missiles and other possible air attacks, were launched this winter.
Raytheon, which produces the aircraft, described the likelihood that the tether would break as “very small” in a post to its website made before the blimp became un-mooored.
“The chance of that happening is very small because the tether is made of Vectran and has withstood storms in excess of 100 knots,” the Raytheon post states. “However, in the unlikely event it does happen, there are a number of procedures and systems in place which are designed to bring the aerostat down in a safe manner.”
At the time of their launch, the company said the 242-foot-long aerostats would be tethered to the ground by “super-strong” cables. The tethering system was designed to withstand 100 mph winds, according to Raytheon.
The helium-filled aerostats can stay aloft for up to 30 days at a time
The aerostats carry technology that almost doubles the reach of current ground radar detection, officials connected with the project said at the time of its launch.
The blimps have no firing capability and don’t carry cameras. Any response to missile attacks would still come from ground missiles, ships and airplanes, according to NORAD.