From the Archive: Aerostat will continue despite accident

From May 3, 1990 (edited for length)

MARFA — Presidio County’s congressman said Monday that the U.S. Customs Service aerostat radar surveillance balloon project should continue despite last Saturday’s accidental destruction of the Marfa aerostat balloon.

Saturday afternoon, the Marfa aerostat balloon ripped Into three pieces during high surface wind gusts, severely damaging the sophisticated state-of-the-art “look-down” radar package attached to the belly of the balloon. The accident was the third in the aerostat program.

“There has not been any change in the aerostat radar balloon project at all,” U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, said Monday from Washington, D.C. “This Is obviously a setback, but a short-term setback and not a long-term fiasco,” he said. 

During a shift change at the Marfa aerostat site between 3:30 and 4 p.m., “The balloon just came apart,” Danny Morris, a General Electric Marfa aerostat systems service engineer, said Sunday.

The three balloon sections — its nose, hull and tail-fin section all landed within the site yard, a
fenced-in area of 1,000 square feet located about 21 miles west of Marfa off U.S. 90. Morris said the balloon ripped during surface wind gusts of 57 mph. “Once it started ripping, it kept going,” Morris said. However, GE officials don’t know what caused the Initial rip, If that is what occurred, he added.

Aerostats are a Customs program designed to detect low-flying drug-smuggling aircraft from Mexico. When operational, aerostats are tethered aloft at about 15,000 feet carrying the look-down radar which has a range of about 150 miles. Each aerostat site costs up to $18 million with a $1 million payroll for the crew of about 30 workers.