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Runaway U.S. Army blimp goes down in Pennsylvania after pursuit by military fighter jets

"We are grateful. It could have been a lot worse," NORAD spokesman Michael Kucharek said.

By Ryan Maass and Doug G. Ware
A Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) airship, a mounted threat detection system stationed at the U.S. Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, broke free from its mooring Wednesday afternoon and traveled, unmanned, for 150 miles until it lost helium and crash-landed in Moreland Township, Pa., officials said. Photo courtesy Raytheon
A Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) airship, a mounted threat detection system stationed at the U.S. Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, broke free from its mooring Wednesday afternoon and traveled, unmanned, for 150 miles until it lost helium and crash-landed in Moreland Township, Pa., officials said. Photo courtesy Raytheon

MORELAND TOWNSHIP, Pa., Oct. 28 (UPI) -- A prototype U.S. Army surveillance aerostat that broke free, unmanned, from its mooring in Maryland steadily went down and ultimately crash-landed in central Pennsylvania Wednesday afternoon -- after it was pursued for hours by a pair of fighter jets, officials said.

The Army's Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, or JLENS, aerostat broke away from its tether at the Aberdeen Proving Ground just before 12:30 p.m. EDT Wednesday.

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The Air Force deployed two F-16s to track the aircraft. Officials from the North American Aerospace Defense Command said it coordinated with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Air National Guard to recover the aerostat and keep it away from other aircraft.

Before it finally crashed into a grouping of trees, the aerostat caused a power outage in Pennsylvania for about 20,000 people. Officials said the airship's tether, a 6,700-foot cable that dangled below, struck power lines as it floated by.

The aerostat steadily lost helium as it traveled, officials said, until it finally went down in Moreland Township, Pa., about three hours after it broke free in Maryland. It traveled about 150 miles and its tail section detached from the aircraft shortly before it went down.

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"It came down quite naturally as it began to lose helium," NORAD spokesman Michael Kucharek said. "We are hearing no reports of injuries, so we are grateful. It could have been a lot worse."

Pennsylvania authorities closed off the crash site so that none of the 7,000-pound ship's high-tech radar and electronic equipment were compromised, a Homeland Security official said.

The aerostat is part of a $2.8 billion Defense Department program to counter enemy drones and cruise missiles that may threaten the U.S. East Coast.

At Aberdeen Proving Ground, JLENS is normally tethered and carried by a 242-foot balloon. The Raytheon-built aircraft is capable of monitoring objects up to 340 miles away in any direction.

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