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Downed blimp goes up -- in cloud of smoke

It took only 29 seconds for an unmanned experimental airship to burn Friday in a heavily wooded area of Greene County where it made an unexpected landing this week.

Lockheed Martin spokesman Keith Little said he could only confirm that the company's High Altitude Long Endurance-Demonstrator, or HALE-D, was damaged after being ignited by a grass fire, but Wayne fire Chief Jeff Hillberry said the aircraft was destroyed.

"They told me it took only 29 seconds for it to burn," Hillberry said. "There's only pieces left scattered around."

The aircraft, described as the first of its kind, was launched at 5:47 a.m. Wednesday by the Army and Lockheed Martin from the company's LTA Persistent Surveillance Systems facility in Akron, Ohio.

Little said the aircraft -- about 270 feet long and 70 feet around and covered with high-strength fabrics -- ascended to 32,000 feet on the experimental flight, but an anomaly on the airship stopped it from reaching 60,000 feet as planned. It was supposed to hover for up to 10 days as officials tested its use for communications relays.

It made a controlled emergency landing about three hours later and was brought down near the sparely populated Ash Tree area of Gilmore, about 9 miles northwest of Blacksville, W.Va.

Firefighters were called about 2:25 p.m. yesterday for a report of a small fire or brush fire near the landing zone, Little said.

"Prior to the arrival of the fire department, Lockheed Martin on-site personnel had the fire under control and it was subsequently extinguished," Little said. "No one was injured. The cause of the fire is under investigation."

Little said several parts of the airship had been removed prior to the fire and that the outer fabric may have been the only thing that burned. He would not say how much it cost to develop the HALE-D.

"They've been there in the woods, cleaning it up and getting ready to haul it away," Hillberry said. "It's been real hush-hush. They wouldn't tell me what happened. They just gave me a name to put on my report and said that's all I needed."

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