Runaway military blimp causes havoc in Pennsylvania

A high-tech military blimp designed to detect a missile attack came loose on Wednesday and wreaked havoc as it floated from Maryland into Pennsylvania, dragging its 10,000-foot-long cable behind it and knocking out power to thousands.

The U.S. military scrambled two armed F-16 fighter jets to keep watch as the blimp traveled into civilian airspace after coming loose shortly after mid-day from its mooring station at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, a U.S. Army facility 40 miles northeast of Baltimore.

It came down several hours later in two parts in Montour County, Pennsylvania, the U.S. military's North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) told reporters.

First, the tail portion of the blimp detached and came to the ground “with no reports of other damage or casualties,” Navy Captain Scott Miller said.

“The remainder of the aerostat has also grounded itself in Montour County,” Miller said.

It was not immediately clear how the blimp became detached from its mooring station at Aberdeen Proving Grounds.

PPL Electric Utilities Corp said that as of 3:45 p.m. there were about 17,800 customers without power in Columbia County, Pennsylvania, with another 9,000 out in Schuylkill County.

The office of Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf released a statement to let the public know the state was monitoring the situation and discussing it with federal officials, state police and emergency officials and the National Guard.

The blimp is known as the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System and was part of a $2.8 billion development project.

Here’s what United Airlines says happened today with its computers

All United Airlines flights were grounded for almost two hours early Wednesday due to a computer hardware problem, creating travel headaches for tens of thousands of passengers that stretched into the afternoon.

“We are restoring regular flight operations, but some customers may experience residual delays (Wednesday),” United said in an afternoon statement.

The Federal Aviation Administration said all flights operated by United, the fourth largest U.S. passenger carrier, were grounded starting at about 8 a.m. EDT after the airline experienced a systemwide computer problem. Some travelers were forced to look for alternative flights and connections before the order was lifted 9:47 a.m.

United said 800 flights had been delayed, with four flights canceled on its main carrier and 55 on its regional partners.

“An issue with a (computer) router degraded network connectivity for various applications, causing this morning's operational disruption,” United said in a statement. “We fixed the router issue, which is enabling us to restore normal functions.”

United said it would rebook flights for affected passengers without charge.

Diane Menditto, 66, a retired teacher from Hackensack, New Jersey, on the United Airlines check-in line at Newark Liberty International Airport said she and her sister-in-law were worried about making a connecting flight en route to Calgary, Alberta in Canada.

“The only thing I would wonder is, now that we're here and things are running smoothly, if we'll actually get out on time,” Menditto said.

A separate computer outage affected stock market trading Wednesday morning. The NYSE Group, which includes the New York Stock Exchange, suspended trading in all securities due to technical difficulties. Trading resumed shortly after 3 p.m. EDT.

U.S Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she had not yet been briefed on the two major outages. She told reporters: “This is not an oddity. This is going to continue to happen and we have to begin to deal with it … and we have to deal with it legislatively.”

Aviation industry consultant Robert Mann said technical disruptions have been on the rise since airlines began automating more of their operations and since they switched from private, proprietary communications for flight operations to Internet-based communication, which is cheaper but exposes the carriers to more risks.

Technical disruptions “are nagging problems, but these are not problems that are going to draw the huge capital investment necessary to (approach) 100 percent reliability,” Mann said. “The revenue loss in these cases is relatively modest.”

United flights were also grounded on June 2 due to “automation issues.”

United Continental Holdings Inc shares fell 3 percent to $52.67.

Why the FAA banned flights to Israel

On Sept. 11, 1969, Israeli flying ace Giora Romm parachuted into the Nile Delta, badly wounded. Months later, he became the first Israeli prisoner of war in Egypt whose life was spared by a POW exchange between the two countries. Romm recounted his tale of captivity and heroic recovery throughout the Sukkot holiday in Los Angeles as part of his book tour for “Solitary: The Crash, Captivity and Comeback of an Ace Fighter Pilot,” the newly released English version of his best-selling Israeli memoir.

“Then I faced the toughest issue of the ex-POW,” the tall and stately Romm, 69, told the Jewish Journal at the Luxe Hotel last week. “Most POWs don’t recover from this trauma. They cannot hold down a family, a job, a life — they do not sleep at night. I decided I would not let the Egyptians dictate my life, and if in my previous life I was an excellent Air Force pilot — and, believe me, I was an excellent pilot — I’m going to be an excellent pilot even later.”

Romm went on to become deputy commander in the Israeli Air Force, returning to Egypt as a squadron leader during the Yom Kippur War, and later became Israel’s military attaché in the United States. He now serves as director of the Civil Aviation Authority of Israel (CAAI), and last summer, he helped Israel overcome a national kind of “solitary,” when the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) banned flights to Israel for 33 hours on July 22 in the midst of Israel’s war with Gaza, known as Operation Protective Edge. In response to the ban, some Conservative critics accused the Obama administration of using the FAA to hold Israel captive to White House policies. 

“In my view, this was nonsense,” Romm said of the criticism. “It was a technical decision by the FAA. I don’t think they had any external involvement, as some high ranking [American] officials spoke with me and said so in plain words.” 

The possibility there might be an FAA lockdown was already known to the CAAI at the start of the operation, which Israel launched on July 8 in an effort to stem Hamas rocket and tunnel attacks from Gaza.

“The FAA called us just before the curfew [on Gaza] and told us about the regulation that if a rocket falls within a perimeter of one mile from the airport, the regulations they have are to put a ban for 24 hours in order to understand what happened and what steps the country is taking to prevent it from happening again,” Romm said.

On July 22, when a Hamas rocket struck the city of Yehud, one mile from the airport’s fence, Delta Air Lines and US Airways quickly made independent decisions to divert flights from Israel, and the FAA made good on its warning. Europe’s airlines followed, further damaging Israeli tourism and leaving travelers who weren’t flying El Al stranded, wondering when or how they’d get home. Romm’s team spent the following intense 33 hours on the phone with the American Embassy and video-conferencing with the FAA, detailing Israel’s safety precautions and procedures. 

“We thought, after research, that a chance that a rocket will hit a plane in the air is one in 1 billion,” Romm said.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., accusations of political motives culminated in Sen. Ted Cruz confronting the FAA head. But it wasn’t political pressure that ended the ban, Romm said.

“They wanted to have assurances that the right precautions were taken to make sure a rocket wouldn’t hit Ben Gurion, and I think we gave them very good assurances,” he said, adding that the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv was supportive of efforts to lift the ban.

Romm said he is certain the FAA takes similar precautions in other rocket-prone conflict areas, but because Ben Gurion is Israel’s only international airport, it is, in Romm’s words, Israel’s “Achilles’ heel.”

So why wasn’t the Yehud rocket intercepted?

“That was the decision of the Israeli Air Force not to intercept the rocket,” Romm said. “Was that the best decision or not? That’s a different story. But they decided not to intercept it, and they knew that it wasn’t going to hit Ben Gurion, but north of Ben Gurion. The air force didn’t know about the one-mile rule, but the [Israel Defense Forces] knows pretty early where the rocket is going to impact the ground.”

Romm said he doesn’t understand why the ban should continue to concern American Jews. The U.S. has a much more pressing aviation issue at hand, he said, and it’s not the Ebola crisis (which, he also said, is under control in Israel, as Ethiopian Airlines is the only African carrier flying into the country).

“As we speak, American pilots are flying day and night over hostile territory,” Romm said, concerned with the possibility of American pilots becoming POWs in Iraq or Syria, as he was in Egypt. “If I were an American, that would be more significant than anything else going on right now.” 

Cruz lifts hold on State nominees prompted by FAA ban

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) lifted his hold on State Department nominees after the Federal Aviation Agency explained to him its reasons for a 36-hour ban on flights to Tel Aviv.

“I appreciate the FAA’s efforts to respond to my questions, and so I have lifted my hold on State Department nominees,” Cruz, a likely 2016 candidate for his party’s presidential nomination said Monday in a statement.

“The hold was designed to force answers to important questions about why the Obama Administration had banned flights to Israel,” he said.

The FAA had said the July 22-23 ban was triggered when a rocket landed about a mile away from Ben Gurion International airport.

Israel complained about the ban, saying it was unwarranted and that there were adequate protections against the rockets fired on Israel from the Gaza Strip during its ongoing war with Hamas.

Cruz had asked the FAA if there was undue political pressure on the regulatory agency to ban the flights as a means of forcing Israel to agree to an imposed cease-fire.

He did not say how the FAA answered his questions, but suggested he still believed the ban was the result of political pressure.

“I remain concerned that the Administration was so willing to impose grave economic harm on our friend and ally Israel in order to try to pressure them into acceding to Secretary Kerry’s foreign policy demands,” Cruz said, referring to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

President Obama and Kerry’s spokeswoman have dismissed the allegations out of hand, saying the ban was driven purely by security considerations.

Obama defends FAA’s ban on flights to Israel [VIDEO]

The FAA lifted its ban on flights to Israel late Wednesday. But on Thursday President Obama was still facing questions on the issue. Check out his comments to CNBC:

FAA extends Ben Gurion Airport ban another 24 hours

The Federal Aviation Administration extended for another day its ban on flights to Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv.

The U.S. agency said, however, that it had received “significant new information” from Israel that could influence its decision.

“The agency is working closely with the Government of Israel to review the significant new information they have provided and determine whether potential risks to U.S. civil aviation are mitigated so the agency can resolve concerns as quickly as possible,” the FAA said Wednesday in its announcement on the ban’s extension.

The statement did not outline the “new information.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the FAA for extending the ban, which was launched Tuesday after a rocket landing near the airport led at least two commercial carriers to cancel flights to Israel.

“There’s no reason whatsoever for the mistaken FAA decision to instruct American planes not to come here,” Netanyahu said at an appearance Wednesday with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who flew into Israel to protest the ban. “I think this decision only rewards the Hamas terrorists for nothing.

“You can fly in and out of Israel, and I hope that the FAA rescinds this decision as soon as possible,” the Israeli leader said.

Israeli officials have said they understand the ban is a procedural decision.

“Our aviation officials are in contact with the FAA, and we are confident that after they learn all the facts, they will resume flights,” Aaron Sagui, the Israel Embassy spokesman in Washington, said in a statement.

Such reassurances did not altogether stop speculation that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry initiated the ban to penalize Israel, although there was no evidence of such an animus.

“Was this a safety issue, or was it using a federal regulatory agency to punish Israel to try to force them to comply with Secretary Kerry’s demand that Israel stop their military effort to take out Hamas’s rocket capacity?” Sen Ted Cruz (R-Texas) asked in a release.

Netanyahu has so far accepted U.S.-backed cease-fire proposals; Hamas has rejected them.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations also called for a removal of the ban.

“Hamas wants to destroy Israel, but also the United States and the values both countries share,” the umbrella body said in a statement Wednesday. “We should not encourage them by invoking a ban on air flights.”

Villaraigosa to FAA: Reverse ban on Ben Gurion flights

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is urging the Federal Aviation Administration to rescind its ban on U.S. airline carriers flying to and from Ben Gurion Airport in Israel.

“Having recently returned from Israel,” Villaraigosa said in a statement on July 23 to the Jewish Journal,  “and especially being there when Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Frankel, three Israeli teenage boys, were kidnapped and killed, I want to publically commend Mayor Mike Bloomberg for his statement about flights to Israel. Israel's Ben Gurion International Airport is the best protected airport in the world and I join Mayor Bloomberg in demanding that the FAA reverse course and allow US airlines to fly to Israel. Allowing these flight restrictions to continue gives the terrorist organization Hamas a victory that they do not deserve.”

As mayor of Los Angeles, Villaraigosa increased security cooperation between LA and Israel, and extended trade and business ties.

FAA, reviewing Israeli measures, lifts flight ban

The Federal Aviation Administration lifted its ban on flights to Israel after reviewing Israeli measures to keep flights safe from rockets.

“Before making this decision, the FAA worked with its U.S. government counterparts to assess the security situation in Israel and carefully reviewed both significant new information and measures the Government of Israel is taking to mitigate potential risks to civil aviation,” the agency said in a statement just before midnight on Wednesday, saying the ban was lifted effective immediately.

The agency had come under fire from the Israeli government, pro-Israel groups and a leading Republican senator for the ban, instituted Tuesday at noon after a Hamas rocket landed in a town about a mile from Ben Gurion International Airport. Its statement appeared to allude to claims that the ban was a means of pressuring Israel into a ceasefire.

“The FAA’s primary mission and interest are the protection of people traveling on U.S. airlines,” the FAA statement said. “The agency will continue to closely monitor the very fluid situation around Ben Gurion Airport and will take additional actions, as necessary.”

Early Wednesday, AIPAC had called the ban “harsh and excessive.”

“For the past two weeks, Israel has endured hundreds of rockets launched by Hamas terrorists from Gaza. Yet, air travel to Israel has been safe and unhindered,” the American Israel Public Affairs Committee said in a statement.

“Safety is an important consideration, but this decision appears overly harsh and excessive,” the statement said. “Moreover, we are concerned that it could have the unintended effect of encouraging terrorists to become even more committed to make civil aviation a target.”

The FAA announced a 24 hour ban on Tuesday, after a rocket hit Yehud, adjacent to the airport, and after a number of commercial airlines had suspended flights because of the rockets fired from the Gaza Strip on Israel since the latest Israel-Hamas started on July 8. It extended the ban for another 24 hours on Wednesday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had said the ban is a “mistake” and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg flew to Israel to protest the ban. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations also has objected to the ban.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) on Wednesday suggested the ban was politically motivated and a means to pressure Israel to accept the terms of a cease-fire being sought by Secretary of State John Kerry. Cruz pledged to block State Department nominees until the Obama administration answered his questions about the ban.

Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, called Cruz’s allegation “offensive and ridiculous.”

The FAA makes “these decisions based solely on the security and safety of American citizens,” she said.

In response, Cruz said, “The only thing ‘offensive’ about this situation is how the Obama Administration is spurning our allies to embolden our enemies; the only thing ‘ridiculous’ is the administration’s response to basic questions.”

Cruz in his releases does not present direct evidence that Kerry or Obama influenced the FAA, a regulatory agency.

He asks why the Obama administration has not banned flights to Ukraine in the wake of a the downing earlier this month of a civilian airliner or to Afghanistan, Yemen or Pakistan, where guerrilla wars are being waged.

In fact, the FAA has banned flights over eastern Ukraine and has imposed restrictions on air travel to Afghanistan and Yemen.

In a reply to a JTA query, Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for Cruz, did not address the anomalies, but said the ban was “unprecedented” and comes just as Kerry announced $47 million in humanitarian assistance for the Gaza Strip, where Hamas is the controlling authority.

“We want this administration to answer who made this decision, where it came from,” Frazier said in an email.

Delta grounds flights to Israel, diverts plane to Paris

Delta Airlines suspended flights into Tel Aviv until further notice and diverted a flight on its way there due to rocket fire from Gaza.

The flight en route from New York’s Kennedy Airport was sent to Paris on Tuesday after a rocket fired from Gaza struck and destroyed a home in Yehud, an Israeli town near Ben Gurion Airport. Flight 268 was carrying 273 passengers and 17 crew members.

Delta said it made the decision to suspend the flights “in coordination with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration” and “to ensure the safety and security of our customers and employees.”

The airline is offering customers with reservations to Israel a waiver for rebooking their flights.


Netanyahu asks Kerry to help resume U.S. flights to Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday to help restore U.S. commercial flights to Israel that had been canceled over the Gaza fighting, an Israeli official said.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a 24-hour prohibition on flights by U.S. carriers to Israel earlier in the day after a Palestinian rocket struck near Ben-Gurion International Airport outside Tel Aviv.

An Israeli official said that Netanyahu, speaking to Kerry while the U.S. diplomat was in Egypt trying to broker a Gaza truce, “asked him to to work for the resumption of flights by American carriers to Israel.”

Confirming the conversation, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the FAA notice was motivated exclusively by security concerns and was being continually reviewed.

Asked whether Netanyahu had asked the FAA to rescind the order, a senior Obama administration official said he was not aware of the request, but added: “We're not going to overrule the FAA, period.”

“If the FAA says this crosses our tripwires, we're not going to say 'Don't warn civil aviation.' We understand Israeli concerns. They don't want to have a shutdown of air traffic into Ben Gurion. We can look at this every 24 hours, but (when) a rocket lands a mile from that airport, that kind of trips their wire.”

Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Alison Williams and Lisa Shumaker