Pentagon personnel on site to investigate loose blimp

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Pictures show ground markings from dragging blimp cable
02:33 - Source: CNN

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Two F-16s scrambled from the New Jersey National Guard are tracking a loose NORAD blimp

The aerostat, which is roughly 243 feet long, came loose from its tethering in Maryland

CNN  — 

Some 40 personnel from the home base of the military blimp that broke loose Wednesday are now at the site where it landed, a U.S. military official told CNN.

There is an on-scene commander and also an investigating officer for the Pentagon, and they hope to remove the wreckage by the end of the day.

The blimp, associated with NORAD’s surveillance of the East Coast, became untethered from its mooring station at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.

The blimp is in two major pieces, split between the tail and the rest of the aerostat, according to Army Capt. Matthew Villa.

He said that officials noticed there was still helium in the nose on Thursday morning, so they decided to shoot it with a shot gun, which Pennsylvania State Police did. It was shot after it crash-landed in order to deflate it.

Villa said all options are being considered for how best to remove it. He added that there was no way to tell if the equipment was still functional until investigators have inspected it.

The blimp landed Wednesday afternoon in northeast Pennsylvania, according to NORAD, which described the landing site as “in a rugged, wooded area.” The military took no kinetic action to bring it to the ground, according to the Pentagon.

The loose JLENS blimp had been in the air over Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, and caused power outages before it came down, Columbia County Department of Public Safety Director Fred Hunsinger said.

Hunsinger said that there were no reports of injuries or deaths, but the dragging of the blimp’s cable had school leaders taking precautions to protect children as classes began to let out for the day.

The dragging cord also caused power outages, with 30,000 people in the Bloomsburg area losing power at one point, according to Joe Nixon with PPL Electric.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s office said that the state was working with local and federal authorities, including the State Police and National Guard, to secure the aerostat’s downed equipment.

“These agencies will continue to be on scene to secure the area and ask all residents to remain away from the scene,” the office said in a statement Wednesday.

Raytheon, which produces the JLENS – short for Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System – describes the system as 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.

NORAD spokesman Mike Kucharek said that it is not yet clear why the blimp got loose, and that is part of an investigation.

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.

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.

Raytheon said the likelihood that the tether would break was “very small” in a post to its website made before the blimp became unmooored.

“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 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 lauch.

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.

CNN’s Boris Sanchez, Ann Roche, Susanna Capelouto, Seth Kovar, Amanda Watts, Brad Landon and Hilary Krieger contributed to this report.