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Military Blimp Gets Loose; Pentagon: Runaway Blimp is on the Ground; Republicans Ready for Battle. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired October 28, 2015 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We have this breaking news. The military, as you know, is scrambling right now to try to get control of its own runaway blimp, a blimp that floated away from a base in Northern Maryland. Officials say the blimp is creating a dangerous situation on the ground. This thing made it some 150 miles north with fighter jets right behind it.

People in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, looked up. They started snapping photographs and video of the blimp. It's almost 250-feet long. It's floating in the air. We're getting new images in by the minute.

A cable dragging below the blimp is causing major concern right now. It is to blame for a major power outage. The military is warning people in the area to stay away.

CNN's Barbara Starr is getting constant updates from her military contacts at the Pentagon.

Barbara, how concerned are officials about this, and what can you tell us about how it happened?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, how it happened is going to be a big part of the investigation. They don't know right now, but at this hour a great deal of concern.

The U.S. military is -- I can tell you they are very distressed at the moment that this has happened and that they are causing a public safety hazard in this area of Northeastern Pennsylvania. There are power outages. NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, monitoring this, extremely concerned about public safety, telling people to stay away from these heavy cables that are dragging behind it.

A lot of concern, because this is unpowered flight, no pilot on board, totally drifts in the wind and weather patterns. No reasonable way to bring it down. Where are we at this hour? What my military sources are telling me is that the blimp is Indeed partially deflated. Not exactly clear how that has happened. It is now very low to the ground and essentially think of it as bumping along, bumping along unpowered on the ground.

The concern, of course, is any damage beyond the power lines it may be causing. Right now, the U.S. military working very closely with Pennsylvania state authorities, local law enforcement, National Guard and other state authorities to try and get some people out there to this site, because when it finally does come to a stationary rest, they want to secure the site, they want to get the classified technology back off it.

They don't want any hazard to public safety from it. They want to keep people away. Their real message at this hour is this situation remains uncertain, so they want the public to stay as far away from it when they see it, Jake.

TAPPER: Barbara, explain to us what you mean when you say that there's no reasonable way to bring it down. I understand that this blimp is a very serious and expensive piece of military equipment.

STARR: Well, here's what we know, and, again, these are first reports coming in.

When this happened earlier today and it broke free from its mooring in Aberdeen Proving Ground just north of Washington, D.C., the military scrambled two F-16 fighters to track this thing, those 16s coming out of their air station in Atlantic City.

This is the first sort of effort by the military to assess it and see what they could do to bring it down. I will tell you, so, you know, first thing is the thing that comes to mind for all of us, could they shoot it down? They certainly could have. They could have put up the assets to shoot it down.

But, again, this is unpowered flight. If you are going to shoot down an aircraft, you perhaps have some engineering analysis of where the wreckage may go, what might happen, unpowered flight totally drifting with the weather pattern, so a lot of uncertainty about that. They wanted not to cause any further damage or harm to the public.

They didn't want it flying over populated areas. There is, we are told, some type of emergency deflate system available to this technology. I will tell you, we don't know here at CNN if that was on board this blimp, if it was working, if it was functioning, if somebody activated that type of system.

We don't know at this hour what caused it to deflate, and after flying along at 16,000 feet for some hours suddenly start losing altitude, begin to deflate over this area of Pennsylvania. But the real issue here is this dilemma that the U.S. military always has over the United States.

If there's a runaway plane, if there is a small aircraft where the pilot is not in control, perhaps lack of oxygen, if there is a hijacked plane, now today if there is a blimp, how far is the U.S. government willing to go? Who makes the decision? Are you really going to shoot something down?


This has been a very fundamental question since 9/11 and something that the military faced again today. By all accounts, it is -- we know the military says they didn't take any action, no kinetic action to bring it down. But it is a question out there, Jake, that the country and the military certainly continues to struggle with. What are you willing to do to bring down an object you are not in control of?

TAPPER: All right, Barbara Starr, stand by. We will come back to you as you gather more information from your Pentagon sources.

Let's go now to Jean Lapinski on the phone. Jean is with the Columbia County Emergency Management Agency.

Jean, tell us where you are and what you know.


TAPPER: Yes, Jean, are you there, Jean Lapinski?

LAPINSKI: Yes. Sorry, I had to put you on hold.

TAPPER: No problem. You're live on CNN. If you could tell us -- first of all, you're with the Columbia County Emergency Management Agency. Where exactly are you located? And what do you know about this incident?

LAPINSKI: We're located in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. We know right now that, according to the Pennsylvania State Police, that the balloon has landed. It is at 15:40 it landed 300 yards north of the Muncy Exchange Road and Yeagle Road in Montour County.

TAPPER: So, it has landed. Do you know where it landed? Did it land safely? Did it land in an area where it wouldn't cause any damage?

LAPINSKI: I don't really know exactly what that area looks like. It looks to me, just on a topographical map we had, that it wasn't a real populated area.

So we're hoping that was the situation with it. Since it is in a different county, we haven't gotten a whole lot of updates on it yet. But we were told that it did land at 15:40.

TAPPER: And who told you that it landed? The Pennsylvania State Police?


TAPPER: And do we know how it landed? Did it come down on its own volition? Did something cause it to come down?

LAPINSKI: We do not know that.

TAPPER: And tell us what the response has been like in your area. Have people been told to stay indoors? About now, of course, or in the last few hours would be time that children would be coming home from school. Was everything fine or were people concerned about this blimp? LAPINSKI: We did have lockdowns on the school until it had passed

over certain areas where it was passing through. We thought it was going to touch down around the Lime Ridge, Lightstreet area.

It was coming down. The wind did pick up and took it and then it went to Millville, Jersey Town area, and then it did take it into the Montour County area.


TAPPER: Who told your school to go on lockdown?

LAPINSKI: We called -- we were calling the school districts because we were without power. So the 911 center was activated.

And that was the schools that -- we recommended that to them and then they did the lockdown and then they were finally able to dismiss the children.

TAPPER: All right. Jean Lapinski telling us that the Pennsylvania State Police have told Columbia County in Pennsylvania, over which this balloon, this -- rather, this blimp flew, that it has landed, and according to what we know so far, not problematically, although we still have a lot of information to gather about this.

Thank you so much, Jean.

Joining me now is Paul Wirth. He's a spokesperson for PPL Electric Utilities in Pennsylvania.

Thanks so much for joining us.

We are hearing about power outage outages in Pennsylvania. Are these all a result of the blimp? And how many people have lost power?

PAUL WIRTH, PPL ELECTRIC UTILITIES: In the area where the power lines are damaged, there are about 18,000 customers without power. That's down from about 30,000 about an hour ago. We have been restoring some of these customers by switching them through to other sources.

TAPPER: And, Mr. Wirth, how did the power go out?

WIRTH: There was damage to one of our power lines reportedly caused by the tether on this blimp.

We have not confirmed that ourselves, but we do know the damage is there. We are assessing damage and beginning repairs. We also don't know right now how long it will take to restore all customers.

TAPPER: And so it was something like a cable, not -- when you say a tether, it sounds not as serious as a cable, something that could actually take out a power line. And it was dragging along the ground causing this damage, according to what you know?

WIRTH: That's the report that we have, although we have not confirmed that ourselves.

TAPPER: We just were talking to Jean Lapinski with Columbia County, Pennsylvania, Emergency Management Agency, telling us that according to Pennsylvania State Police, she'd been told that this blimp has landed. Have you been told anything along those lines?

WIRTH: I am not aware that the power company has been notified of that information.


TAPPER: Have you heard of any other damage caused by this big cable being dragged by the blimp?

WIRTH: We have not heard of any other damage. There are other power lines today, but the weather is pretty stormy here in Pennsylvania -- I mean other outages today.

The weather is pretty stormy here in Pennsylvania and most of them are related to tree limbs. This is the only damage we know that reportedly is caused by this blimp.

TAPPER: Was it just a power line that went out? Or was there anything more consequential like a transformer or anything along those lines?

WIRTH: No, it was actually a power line that was damaged and that caused some circuit breakers to trip and that's caused the outages.

TAPPER: All right. Paul Wirth, utility spokesman, thank you so much. We hope of course that that limited damage is all that has happened, but we are still waiting for official word to come in.

We're going to have much more ahead on this breaking news, this runaway military blimp that we have been told has just landed somewhere in Pennsylvania, according to Pennsylvania State Police, relaying that to one of the local emergency management officials.

We will talk more about what exactly happened, how much damage this has caused -- that story next.


[16:15:32] TAPPER: Welcome back.

We are continuing to cover the breaking news on THE LEAD. A Pentagon spokesperson now telling CNN that its aerostat or blimp that became untethered from a military base in northern Maryland is now thankfully down having traveled almost 200 miles north into Pennsylvania. Along the way, the cable cord dragging below knocked out power to some 30,000 people. That power's been restored to about 10,000 of them, 18,000 roughly still without power in Pennsylvania because of this rogue aerostat or blimp.

Let's go back to Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

Barbara, do we know how it came down? Did it come down on its own volition or was it forced in some way?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, the U.S. military saying they did nothing to bring it down. They did not shoot it down. There was no kinetic activity. But that it started to deflate from 16,000 feet where it had been traveling in uncontrolled flight for several hours.

Now, this will be a matter of the investigation as well. What caused it to start deflating?

If it came down in this area and only -- and it's still serious, only caused power outages, we do not minimize that, that is still a good outcome in terms of the damage that could have been caused.

I can tell you for the last several hours I've been talking to military officials who were just frantic what if this thing had bounced along on a highway full of cars dragging the cable through a populated area, dragging the cable up and down a highway? Because the problem here is this is uncontrolled flight. You either shoot it down or find a way to deflate it. There is no pilot on board. This drifts with the weather patterns.

So, there's a lot of concern here about what exactly happened, the entire chain of events. These aerostats, these blimps, this particular one is in part of a pair. And we now know that the other one's still at Aberdeen proving grounds in Maryland has now been grounded, as you can well imagine, until the investigation is completed about what really happened here -- Jake.

TAPPER: And, Barbara, obviously, these are part of a defense system in this country. They're affiliated with NORAD. They help keep the Eastern Seaboard safe and detect what's going on out there. I would think that there is going to be a major investigation into how this became untethered given the import of the equipment, given the expense of the equipment.

Is there any idea as to how the military lost control of this blimp?

STARR: Well, we are told it is operated by a contractor. There will have to be an investigation as to exactly what happened. But, Jake, I think you're raising what is such a key point especially here on the Eastern Seaboard in the capital area of Washington. This is part of a system that was being tested to help keep air space safe in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, this mid-Atlantic area of the Eastern Seaboard.

This is technology that is radars to detect aircraft coming in on a 360-degree range, cruise missiles, any kind of unidentified air object that could pose a threat to the nation's capital.

But what has happened today it now raises the question is it appropriate technology in such a populated area? If it is unpowered, if it can simply break loose and drift, which is not supposed to happen, is this too risky? Is there some other way to do business? Is there some oh way to keep the capital region safe? NORAD saying earlier today that Washington, D.C. is perfectly safe

from any air defense threats. It will be a big question about where this program goes from here.

TAPPER: Barbara Starr, thanks so much. We're going to continue to come back to Barbara as she continues to get information from her Pentagon sources.

For now, let's go right now to CNN military analyst, retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona. He's joining us via Skype.

Colonel Francona, thanks for joining us.

The blimp's cable we're told dragged below causing major power outages to at least 30,000 in Pennsylvania. But if that's all that happened, and I don't mean to make light of it, but if that's all that happened I suppose we should consider ourselves lucky. That cable could have caused more serious damage, I would think.

LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Oh, absolutely. Let's take -- remember the size of this object. It's 75 yards long. It weighs 7,000 pounds and it's dragging what could be as long as a 10,000-foot cable.

[16:20:04] You know, just the sheer weight and strength being drug along the ground by high winds, you know, it's very stormy in Pennsylvania right now. So, I think the outcome if this thing came down without doing a lot of damage to the ground, I think that's the best we could have hoped for. Power outages unfortunate, but I don't think we're hearing of any loss of life.

So, this could have been much, much worse than -- you know, a 7,000- pound object coming down uncontrolled, very dangerous.

TAPPER: Colonel, tell us about this aerocraft -- this aircraft you call an aerostat and, more colloquially, we're referring to as a blimp. How expensive is this? What is this used for?

FRANCONA: Well, this is part a -- it's a very expensive system, but each one of these costs about $200 million. And they operate in a pair. And one will carry a surveillance radar and the other will carry a fire control radar.

Now, this system is not fully operational yet. It's still in its testing phase. And I suspect that what happened today will dramatically alter the specifications of what they have to do. So, it is supposed to be detecting incoming targets. And the fire control radar will assist ground based missiles or air defense assets to intercept those targets.

But -- and the system was meant to save money, 24-hour, seven day a week surveillance without having to use other manned aircraft. So, the idea was good, but this is cutting edge technology. There are going to be problems when you try and do this.

TAPPER: How is it tethered to the ground ask? Obviously not sufficiently, but in what way could this possibly have come loose?

FRANCONA: Well, you know, they have a tower. It's like you've seen it in the movies with the old zeppelins. It's got the tower. And it's secured to that.

And then when they want to run it up they release it from the tower and it's got a cable, it's actually a bundle of cables. It's got the cable that tethers the device and it's also got all of the control cables inside.

I think Barbara raised a key point here. This is an uncontrolled flight, so when this thing breaks away from its tether, there's no pilot on board, there's no motor on board. So it's very hard to control or predict where it's going to go.

So how does it come loose? That's going to be a big question in the investigation. Could have been weather related. Could have been a defective cable. But that's one thing we don't know yet.

TAPPER: Retired Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona, thanks for joining me. We're going to keep tabs on this blimp, where it landed, the path of damage it caused, hoping that the damage caused was very limited.

Also in our politics lead, Donald Trump getting ready to go nose to nose with the guy who leapt over him in the national polls, Dr. Ben Carson. Will he be able to take the heat of front runner spotlight?


[16:27:21] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

We are following the breaking news that runaway military blimp or aerostat that left tens of thousands without power is now down. You can see the image on the right side of your screen. According to Pentagon officials, the blimp has come down. We're just now getting these images which the military refers to as an aerostat. A WNEP reporter just tweeted out the photo we're showing you showing the aerostat or blimp tangled in the trees.

We're going to continue to keep you updated on the fallout from this incident as we learn more. As far as we know, there has been no injuries to any individuals thankfully.

But let us turn now to another story to our politics lead: Go big or go home. The stakes could scarcely be higher tonight in primetime as the Republican presidential candidates meet for their third debate.

Within days of the last debate, which you may recall CNN hosted and I moderated, Senator Marco Rubio and Carly Fiorina jumped ahead in the polls. And Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker dropped out of the race entirely.

Now, Donald Trump after wrestling his way to the top of the polls finds himself something of an underdog entering tonight's Republican rumble. Dr. Ben Carson currently has the polling heat.

Our political team is ring side in Boulder, Colorado, for tonight's event. We'll start with CNN political reporter Sara Murray.

Sara, Trump is already trying to work the refs a bit, the moderators, on Twitter.

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICS REPORTER: Yes, that's right. He's already taking them on on twitter. And no surprise. Look, over the last couple days, we've gotten a glimpse of what a Donald Trump running behind looks like and he does not enjoy being in second place. We'll see how fiery he is when he takes the debate stage tonight.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Got a little shakeup in Iowa. I don't know what's going on.

MURRAY (voice-over): Donald Trump taking the debate stage tonight, looking for a chance to get back on top, unable to hide his disbelief that he's now trailing nationwide and in Iowa.

TRUMP: Please do me a favor, let me win Iowa. I refuse to say get your asses in gear, I will not say that. I'm not leaving Iowa. I'm not leaving Iowa.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: That's right.

TRUMP: Now, if I lose Iowa, I will never speak to you people again, that I can tell.

MURRAY: Will Trump try to appear presidential and policy focus, or lash out against the man who now leads the polls, Dr. Ben Carson?

TRUMP: What, what is my competition? Do you think these guys -- I'm not going to say Carson. I'm not going to say Rubio, who really is way down. I don't like being second. Second is terrible, to me.

MURRAY: For Carson, the pressure is on. He spent 12 hours in debate prep Monday, readying for the intense scrutiny that comes with being the front runner.

JEB BUSH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I have the leadership skills to make it so.

MURRAY: And for Jeb Bush, a breakout moment can't come fast enough. Increasingly frustrated with the state of the race, he's promising to come out swinging against Trump.