Mysterious unmooring of 250-foot surveillance blimp troubles Army

Shotgun-wielding authorities eventually shot down the blimp over the Pennsylvania countryside. The wreckage is scattered in trees along a ravine in a secluded area with no roads leading directly to the site.

Jimmy May/Bloomsburg Press Enterprise via AP
An unmanned Army surveillance blimp floats through the air while dragging a tether line in Pennsylvania on Wednesday.

Pentagon officials are investigating what caused a 250-foot surveillance blimp to break from its mooring at a military base in Maryland on Wednesday and float 150 miles before crashing in rural Pennsylvania.

The high-tech blimp – which is designed to detect missile attacks – caused electrical outages for thousands of residents as its tether hit power lines along its three-and-a-half-hour journey.

Shotgun-wielding authorities eventually shot down the blimp over the Pennsylvania countryside near Muncy, a small town about 80 miles north of Harrisburg. It climbed from a starting altitude of 6,600 feet to 16,000 feet before deflating.

US Army Captain Matthew Villa said that while authorities were able to remove sensitive electronics that were onboard, it could take weeks to remove the entire aircraft. The wreckage is scattered in trees along a ravine in a secluded area with no roads leading directly to the site.

"The terrain is extremely steep," Capt. Villa said. "It's rocky, slippery, leaves, in fact there's a stream going through the site as well."

Pentagon officials said the blimp broke free at 12:20 p.m. on Wednesday. It quickly became a sensation on social media. Hashtags like #Blimpflood and #Blimpmemes ranked among the top trending topics on Twitter.

The incident was far less well received by military officials, who scrambled two armed F-16 fighters to tail the blimp as it made its way northwards.

The blimp was part of a $2.8 billion Army program called the Joint Land-Attack Cruise Missile Elevated Netted Sensor System, or JLENS. The program is designed to help defend the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area against cruise missiles in addition to drone aircraft and "surface moving targets" such as swarming boats and tanks. The system itself is still in a testing phase.

A second blimp at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland will be grounded until the military inspects it and completes its investigation into the unmooring.

This report includes material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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