Accident could spell the end of US Defense Department blimp program.
A US military blimp, which was part of a $2.8bn defense program [sic], wreaked havoc on the countryside and cut power to thousands after breaking free from its mooring at a US army base in Maryland last week.
The 242-foot military aerostat dragged its 6,700 foot long cable behind it as it floated from Maryland to Pennsylvania.
Although there were no reports of injuries or deaths, the $1.4bn (£981m) military blimp’s unintended journey caused widespread damage resulting in 30,000 Pennsylvania residents being left without power and schools in the district were forced to close.
US military officials contemplated for hours on how to bring the giant airship down as they scrambled two armed F-16 fighter jets to keep watch, before it came down on its own in Exchange, Pennsylvania, about 150 miles (241km) north of where it first became untethered.
On Thursday morning, after noticing that there was still helium in the nose, Pennsylvania State Police shot the blimp with a shotgun in order to fully deflate it.
The breakaway blimp’s travels caught the attention of social media, becoming a sensation with hashtags like #Blimpfood and #Blimpmemes ranking among the most trending topics.
The ‘cruise-missile fighting radar blimp’ designed by defense contractor Raytheon as one of two flown as part of the $2.8bn (£1.81bn) Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) program.
The two military blimps have been launched as part of a three-year test of their capability to track moving objects from North Carolina to Boston – an area the size of Texas.
The blimps are designed to defend against threats beyond cruise missiles, which include drone aircraft and ‘surface moving targets’ such as swarming boats and tanks.
JLENS program comes unstuck
The JLENS program which encompasses the two blimps has been widely criticised for having a troubled budget and performance history spanning two decades.
The breakaway blimp fiasco has put a microscope on its ongoing problems, with members of Congress prompted to question the future of the JLENS program.
Representative for Utah Jason Chaffetz (R) and the chairman of the House oversight committee, Elijah Cummings (D), expressed their concerns about the JLENS program in a joint letter to the Defense Secretary and Transportation Secretary, writing that “this event raises questions about the value and reliability of JLENS”.
The congressmen also asked for all DOD and DOT contract and documents relating to the program by Nov.12, to help them ‘understand whether JLENS is a worthwhile investment of taxpayer dollars.”
Speaking to FoxNews.com, U.S Marine Corps Capt. Dan Grazier chastised the JLENS program, stating that “it’s certainly a laughing stock now, I don’t think this is a very good way to publicize a program.”
Capt. Grazier also questioned the future of the program, stating that it wasn’t the first time a military blimp had broken from its mooring, recalling his experience while serving of a US surveillance blimp drifting off into Pakistan with classified equipment.
“This is not exactly the Civil War anymore, I think we can come up with solutions other than a helium balloon flying 10,000 feet over the United States,” he said.
The latest JLENS fiasco comes five years after the $182m prototype airship for the current blimp was destroyed when a civilian blimp unmoored in a storm and crashed into it at a manufacturing facility in North Carolina.
A series of problems with cost and performance in recent years also forced the Pentagon to scale back the JLENS project in 2012.
Second blimp crash In Afghanistan kills five
The JLENS breakaway blimp comes just days after an alleged incident on October 11, in which a British military helicopter reportedly crashed into a US military blimp in Kabul’s NATO headquarters, killing five people.
According to what are so-far unsubstantiated reports of an eyewitness who spoke to the BBC, the helicopter hit the tether which then wrapped itself around the rotors causing it to crash killing the five people on board – two US service members, two British service members and a French contract civilian.
The alleged incident involved a Puma Mk2 helicopter, which was carrying members of NATO involved in training and mentoring Afghanistan’s air force.