'Aerostats over Washington' raises safety concerns

February 7, 2013

A Defense Department plan to test-fly two aerostats—huge helium-filled tethered craft—within Washington, D.C., airspace for security purposes raises flight-safety concerns in the already-congested airspace, AOPA said.

The association also questioned the cost of establishing the two aerostats, each nearly as long as a football field, in the airspace starting in September for a three-year trial period. The aerostats would be tethered to the ground from cables extending as high as 10,000 feet, possibly leading to additional airspace restrictions.

Positioned above the densely populated metropolitan area, the aerostats raise a variety of concerns, said Tom Zecha, AOPA manager of aviation security.

“They are a serious hazard to all aircraft flying in the Washington, D.C., airspace,” he said. “They are a hazard to people and property on the ground. The project would cost about half a billion dollars for the hardware, and there has been no mention of the cost to continuously operate and maintain the system.”

An aerostat cable striking an aircraft of any size “would be like a buzz saw going through a beer can,” he said.

Aerostat manufacturer Raytheon refers to the aircraft as JLENS, for Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System. Posted on Raytheon’s website was a Reuters news service report about the planned aerostat operation above Washington, D.C.

According to Raytheon, a JLENS unit or “orbit” includes “two tethered, 74-meter helium-filled aerostats connected to mobile mooring stations and a communications and processing groups.”

AOPA will urge lawmakers to consider more practical and cost effective measures to get the surveillance equipment aloft, and will take up safety concerns with airspace and security agencies, Zecha said.

“The Washington, D.C., airspace is extremely congested. There is no place to tether these two aerostats where they will not be a hazard to aircraft,” he said.

Topics Airspace