The runaway military surveillance blimp that came loose from an Army base in Maryland on Wednesday dragged its torn tether through power lines in two Pennsylvania counties before crashing into the woods.
But at least no one died.
The same can’t be said of a recent accident involving a U.S. military blimp in Kabul that constantly hovers over the Afghan capital. (See The Above, a short documentary from The Intercept’s Field of Vision project, also embedded below.)
On Oct. 11, a British military helicopter was coming in for a landing at NATO headquarters, where the blimp is moored. According to an eyewitness who spoke to the BBC, the helicopter hit the tether, which then wrapped itself around the rotors. The helicopter crashed, killing five people — two U.S. service members, two British service members, and a French contract civilian — and injuring five more.
The helicopter was a Puma Mk2, carrying members of NATO involved in training and mentoring Afghanistan’s air force.
The two American casualties were both from the Air Force: Maj. Phyllis J. Pelky, 45, an aide-de-camp to the Air Force Academy superintendent; and Master Sgt. Gregory T. Kuhse, 38, who was assigned to Scott Air Force Base in Illinois.
The British dead were identified as Flight Lieutenant Alan Scott and Flight Lieutenant Geraint “Roly” Roberts, both of the Royal Air Force.
The BBC’s Andy Moore reported that the British Defense Ministry was investigating. “Official military sources say only that somehow or other, during the course of that incident, the cable of the balloon was severed,” he said.
The blimp deflated and eventually crashed to the ground nearby.
Its deflation was captured on video. Afghan onlookers, used to seeing the blimp as impregnable and omniscient, cheered, and urged the person filming it to post the video on Facebook, which he did.
The blimps that fly over Kabul are part of what’s called the Persistent Threat Detection System. They provide live 24-hour video surveillance of the area, allowing operators to zoom in on specific locations to see what’s going on.
But officials value them for more than just surveillance. As a 2012 Army “After Action Report” from Afghanistan noted, the balloons “serve as a great deterrent even if they aren’t operational. INS [insurgents] and LNs [local nationals] alike believe the blimp can see everything and will act differently when it’s up.”
The report’s recommendation: to fly the balloons “as much as possible, even if the camera systems/feed is broken. Work IO [Information Operation] messages that re-enforce the perception that [they] can see everything.”
The Oct. 11 accident was not the first time helicopters in Afghanistan have hit a blimp’s tether. Defense News reported in 2013 that at least three Army blimps in Afghanistan were lost due to a “helicopter tether strike” during the course of one year. That led the military to make the tethers more visible, placing “flags and visible light and infrared strobes at regular intervals on the tethers to help improve visibility.”
In Kabul, the sight of a runaway blimp is also apparently not nearly as rare as it is in Pennsylvania. Defense News described an incident in 2011 where a blimp got loose, “speeding through the sky, out of control, carried by the furious wind. Suddenly, an F-16 fighter jet roared close and then opened fire, mangling the blimp-like dirigible, like blasting a football with a round of buckshot. Gradually, the aerostat slumped to the ground.”
And apparently, “that was just one of two aerostats lost to a storm that day,” Defense News reported.
There have been domestic — and fatal — blimp accidents, too. Three people were killed in 2007 off the Florida Keys when their small plane hit a tether and crashed. The Associated Press reported at the time that the plane’s wing “hit the wire at about 4,000 feet halfway between the ground and the blimp then crashed in about two feet of water.”
That was the famous “Fat Albert” blimp that hovers over Cudjoe Key, now serving U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Coast Guard to thwart drug-trafficking operations. Fat Albert has a long history of getting loose in high winds, including a famous incident in 1981 when fishermen saw its tether dragging across the water and tied it to their boat. According to the Miami Herald, the blimp then lifted the boat out of the water. The fishermen jumped out safely, but two F-4 phantom jets shot the blimp down over the Gulf of Mexico using air-to-air missiles.
As for the runaway blimp that crashed in Pennsylvania, don’t expect to see it or its partner in the sky again anytime soon, if at all. They were the last remnants of a troubled $2.7 billion program called JLENS or “Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System,” intended to spot aerial attacks that normal radar can’t see.
The blimp that got away was part of a two-blimp “orbit” being tested over Aberdeen, Maryland, for a three-year period after nearly two decades of massive cost overruns, buggy software and dashed expectations.
One blimp has powerful radar that’s supposed to sweep an area as wide as Texas. It’s called the surveillance aerostat. That one went up last December. The other is supposed to take more precise measurements of identified threats, and pass along the information necessary to shoot them down. It’s called the fire control aerostat, and it only went up this past August.
It was the fire control aerostat — the new one — that got loose. But according to Lt. Marco Chouinard of NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, “The team on the ground, when they noticed that the fire control aerostat had broken free, they immediately lowered and secured the surveillance aerostat as a precaution, pending the outcome of a thorough investigation.”
The fire control aerostat is being recovered after it fell to the ground, in two pieces. “The tail and the main section are basically separated by about a quarter of mile,” Chouinard said.
The Associated Press reported that the main section still had helium in its nose when it went down, so state police troopers fired about 100 shotgun blasts into it.
Raytheon Co., the contractor on the JLENS project, had hopes of selling more of the systems, if not in the U.S., then internationally. The company was hoping for an “A+” from NORAD to encourage sales.
But the Baltimore Sun noted that the blimp’s four-hour, 160-mile journey belied representations that Raytheon and the Army had made. Raytheon had called the chance that the tether would break “very small.” Military planners had said that in case of detachment, it would deflate automatically, or by remote control, and would be on the ground in four minutes. Nearby residents had also been told there was a 90 percent chance the balloon would come down within 12.5 miles of its base.
But the leaders of the House Oversight and Government Committee sent letters to the secretaries of defense and transportation on Thursday seeking answers. And former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee cited the program as a metaphor for government in the Republican presidential debate on Wednesday night.
“What we had was something the government made — basically a bag of gas — that cut loose, destroyed everything in its path, left thousands of people powerless,” he said. “But they couldn’t get rid of it because we had too much money invested in it, so we had to keep it.
“That is our government today. We saw it in the blimp. That’s exactly what we saw.”
Here is filmmaker Kirsten Johnson’s short documentary The Above, which features both the blimp hovering over Kabul and the one in Maryland that got away.
Research: Margot Williams