An unmanned U.S. Army surveillance blimp that tore loose from its ground tether in Maryland landed in Pennsylvania several hours later, NORAD confirmed.
The 240-foot, helium-filled blimp detached from its station at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, before noon Wednesday, according to a statement from the U.S. Army installation. It drifted at an altitude of 16,000 feet, dragging a tether of 6,700 feet, before descending about 150 miles away.
Two F-16 fighter jets from the Atlantic City Air National Guard Base in New Jersey monitored the craft but had no part in its descent. Nor was an auto-deflate device activated. Why the blimp deflated is unclear.
The runaway blimp caused a stir in Pennsylvania, with people tweeting photos of an object believed to be the blimp.
Residents watched it float silently over the sparsely populated area, its dangling tether taking out power lines.
Tiffany Slusser Hartkorn saw it fly over her neighborhood on the outskirts of Bloomsburg around 2:15 p.m. and soon disappear from sight.
"I honestly was worried that there were people in it that would be injured. A neighbor down the road is thinking it knocked down a tree branch and power pole by his house that could've potentially destroyed his house," Hartkorn said.
Wendy Schafer's first thought upon seeing the blimp near her job at a spa and salon in Bloomsburg was that a nearby school was conducting an experiment.
"I had no idea what it was. We lost power at work, so I looked outside and saw the blimp," Schafer said. "My first thought was Vo-Tech was doing something at the school until my friends tagged on Facebook about the blimp. It was crazy."
About 27,000 customers in two counties were left without power, according to electric utility PPL, and Bloomsburg University canceled classes because of the outage. Electricity was restored to most people within a few hours.
The craft even knocked out power to the State Police barracks at Bloomsburg before settling in a wooded hollow, where it was swiftly cordoned off while military personnel began arriving to retrieve it, State Police Capt. David Young said. He said trees will probably have to be cut down to get it out.
Navy Capt. Scott Miller, the spokesman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command, said the tail portion broke off and hit the ground about a quarter-mile from the main section.
The blimp is the kind used extensively in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to provide surveillance over U.S. bases and other sensitive sites.
It's not immediately clear how the blimp came loose.
"My understanding is, from having seen these break loose in Afghanistan on a number of occasions, we could get it to descend and then we'll recover it and put it back up,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in a brief exchange with reporters at the Pentagon. “This happens in bad weather.”
Raytheon referred questions to the military. But on its website, the defense contractor said the chances of the tether breaking are very small because it is made of a durable synthetic fiber and has withstood storms of more than 115 mph.
The aircraft is known as a Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) aerostat and can be used as part of a missile defense system. The blimp was operating at the Aberdeen Proving Ground as part of a test of the systems that defend the nation's capital against airborne attack. The loss of the blimp has not weakened those defenses, Miller said.
Jason Jarinko, a teacher at Central Columbia High School in Bloomsburg, said he was alerted to the blimp by a student who was gazing out the window just before the start of a class.
"We just kind of scoffed that he had seen a bird or something, and he said, 'No, look!' and it was this blimp coming at us from the east," Jarinko said. He said students gathered in disbelief as it passed over at maybe 200 to 300 feet.
"As it got closer to us, all of a sudden our lights started to flicker and we lost power," he said. "At first, we didn't realize the two events were related."