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WATCH: An enormous US military blimp broke loose and floated for 140 miles today

It dragged a mile-long tether behind it, and has left 20,000 homes without electricity.

Military Surveillance Balloons Associated Press Associated Press

Updated: 8.41 pm

AN UNMANNED US Army surveillance blimp broke loose from its ground tether at a military base in Maryland this evening, and drifted over nearby Pennsylvania as two Air Force fighter jets set off in pursuit.

The blimp’s long tether snapped power lines, causing electricity cuts, but officials said later this evening that it had been grounded, almost 140 miles from its starting point.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado said the blimp detached from its station in Maryland at about 12.20 pm local time (4.20 pm Irish time), and initially travelled north at an altitude of about 16,000 feet.

Police in Columbia County, Pennsylvania, confirmed they had been getting 911 calls about blimp sightings, but they could not provide additional details.

Witnesses reported seeing the blimp drifting between Jerseytown and Turbotville, north of Harrisburg, the capital of the state of Pennsylvania. Its tether was snapping power lines.

This map shows the approximate, 137-mile (220-km) route the JLENS blimp took this evening:

jlensroute Google Maps Google Maps

The local electric utility, PPL, reported about 20,000 customers without power in the area, although it was unclear how many could be attributed to the blimp.

Bloomsburg University cancelled classes, citing a “widespread power outage.”

One student there posted this video to Twitter, showing the blimp hovering overhead, and appearing to descend.

The blimp is the kind used extensively in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to provide ground surveillance around U.S. bases and other sensitive sites.

US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter explained:

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. This happens in bad weather.

Carter did not say what the two F-16 fighters tracking the runaway blimp might be asked to do or whether he considered it a threat to aviation.

The F-16s were launched from the Atlantic City Air National Guard Base in New Jersey, according to the NORAD statement.

The aircraft is known as a Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System , or JLENS, and can be used as part of a missile defense system.

It was not immediately clear how the blimp came loose.

Contains reporting by the Associated Press.

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