The photograph above shows what a $2.7 billion U.S. military aerostat is supposed to look like — tethered to the ground.
But on Wednesday, as my colleague Richard Sisk reported, one of the 7,000-pound unmanned surveillance crafts broke loose from its moorings at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland and drifted into Pennsylvania, triggering the scrambling of F-16 fighter jets and causing widespread power outages before it was secured. See the photograph below.
The story dominated news headlines and social media, with reporters, defense industry observers and concerned and curious citizens taking to Twitter to provide real-time updates. The even got a mention during the Republican presidential debate later in the evening.
Here at DefenseTech, we wanted to provide readers with some background on the troubled program, technically called Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Sensor System, or JLENS, and share some of the best pictures from the hilarious and, for a moment, terrifying story.
As Sisk reported, the giant, white, helium-filled craft is part of North American Aerospace Defense Command’s East Coast surveillance system:
“The 242-foot-long aerostat is made by Raytheon Co. and packed with sensors and other electronic equipment designed to detect enemy missiles and planes. It’s one of two that were in place and flying at about 10,000 feet over the military’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland north of Baltimore to provide surveillance of the greater Washington, D.C.
In an investigative piece last month, David Willman, a reporter for The Los Angeles Times, reported that despite its cost, the technology “has struggled to track flying objects and to distinguish friendly aircraft from threatening ones.” Indeed, in April, it didn’t detect the Florida postal worker who flew a gryocopter onto the lawn of the Capitol because it wasn’t working that day, the article states.
What’s more, Willman also reported that the manufacturer pressed Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright to support the troubled program.
“At Cartwright’s urging, money was found in 2011 for a trial run of the technology — officially, an “operational exercise” — in the skies above Washington, D.C
Cartwright retired the same year — and joined Raytheon’s board of directors five months later. As of the end of 2014, Raytheon had paid him more than $828,000 in cash and stock for serving as a director, Securities and Exchange Commission records show.”
Making matters worse, the Army had previously promised that the aerostat would be “tethered to the ground at all times,” but even Defense Secretary Carter acknowledged during a press conference on Wednesday that “these things happen in bad weather.”
What’s more, there may have been problems with the craft’s auto-deflate technology. It drifted almost 200 miles north from Aberdeen outside Baltimore — its mile-long Kevlar tether knocking out power lines along the way — before crashing in pieces in the woodlands of Moreland Township, Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, here are some of the best photos and tweets of the runaway blimp.
Great picture from @PressEnterPA photographer Jimmy May on the #Blimp and #Amish buggy near #Bloomsburg, Pa pic.twitter.com/VonLWt9DyC
— Phil Yacuboski (@WBALPhil) October 28, 2015
Drag line on property near Bloomsburg, PA. Witness says he saw blimp cable dragging near his home. pic.twitter.com/g30HY5iclC — Andy Mehalshick (@AndyMehalshick) October 28, 2015
Here is the #blimp well part of it…in a tree near Muncy @WNEP pic.twitter.com/epkaSuFsxj — Nikki Krize (@NikkiKrize) October 28, 2015