Second U.S. Army Blimp Grounded Indefinitely

A second blimp housed at Maryland’s Aberdeen Proving Ground has been grounded indefinitely after its sister aircraft became untethered and floated 160 miles away Wednesday, the North American Aerospace Defense Command said Thursday.

The Raytheon-designed pair of blimps, known as Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS), has been housed at the base since 2014, held down by heavy cables.

Around midday, one of the blimps become untethered and captivated the East Coast as it made its way north, hovering over schools and residential areas. At times, the cables that were supposed to hold it down were instead taking out local power lines.

The blimps were part of what has become an extraordinary expensive U.S. Army development project. That the blimp came undone was just the latest in a series of embarrassments that have plagued the program.

By 2012, the U.S. had spent nearly $2 billion on the blimp’s development but didn’t have a product in the sky to show for it. Rather the money went to working out a series of development problems. At one point, the Pentagon considered killing the program but instead spent an additional $6 billion to get 14 pairs of them in the sky.

Aberdeen researchers now are in Pennsylvania’s Montour County, where the craft came down, to recover the aerostat and determine the extent of the damage.

Filled with 590,000 cubic feet of non-flammable helium, JLENS uses two tethered aerostats, each 240-feet long. Originally crafted to detect cruise missiles, its radar’s reach expanded to drones, tanks and small planes.

—Nancy A. Youssef