WASHINGTON — A tethered US Army aerostat called the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) that broke free Wednesday from its mooring station near Baltimore and took a three-hour jaunt through the skies of Pennsylvania finally landed in the north-central part of the state.
The blimp's trip over Pennsylvania was not without incident as it dragged its tether – several thousand feet of liquid crystal polymer-based fiber called Vectran – and caused several large power outages by hitting power lines. At one point, the blimp reached a height of 15,000 feet, North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) spokesman Navy Capt. Scott Miller said.
The blimp's tail broke off about a quarter of a mile from where JLENS ultimately landed, Miller said. Both pieces were secured by local authorities. Nobody was hurt when the tail broke off and landed, he said. No other injuries were immediately reported.
The JLENS aerostat – equipped with an auto-deflation device – deflated and landed on its own, he said.
"We are not aware of the cause of the deflation," Miller said. "We did not bring down the blimp."
He could not confirm if the auto-deflation device caused the blimp to deflate.
NORAD is also not sure why the tether broke. Miller said weather was not suspected.
The Raytheon-made JLENS system consists of both a fire-control system aerostat and a surveillance aerostat, and is undergoing a three-year operational exercise at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. It is capable of tracking swarming boats and vehicles, and detecting and tracking cruise missile threats. It can "see" all the way from Norfolk, Virginia, into Boston. The exercise is meant to decide JLENS' fate — whether that is keep the system permanently moored in Maryland and whether the Army decides to buy more than just two systems it now has.
The system's surveillance aerostat detached from its mooring station at 12:20 p.m. ET Wednesday, NORAD spokesman Michael Kucharek told Defense News.
Two armed F-16 fighter jets from Atlantic City, New Jersey, trailed the blimp into Pennsylvania, Kucharek said. Miller said at no point did NORAD think about shooting the blimp down.
The first JLENS aerostat, carrying a suite of surveillance sensors, was launched in December. The fire-control blimp launched just a few months ago over suburban Baltimore.
JLENS, which cost nearly $2 billion to develop and was originally destined for deployment in the Central Command area of operation, was nearly canceled a few years ago when the Army cut its planned buy from 16 systems to two. The move was projected to save the Army $2 billion. The other system is in storage.
This isn't the first major incident involving JLENS. In September 2010, a different type of aerostat broke free from its tether during bad weather and crashed into a JLENS aerostat at a manufacturing and test facility in North Carolina. The Army and Raytheon sat on the information until InsideDefense.com reported the incident six months later when a reference to the crash appeared in a Government Accountability Office report. That crash ended up costing the Army $168 million.
It's not immediately clear how much Wednesday's incident will cost the government or if the aerostat is a total loss.
The fire-control aerostat at Aberdeen is being grounded until an investigation of the incident is completed, Miller said.