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 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 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.
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.