Like Giant Marshmallows on a String

Illustration by Ken Davis

IF YOU’RE TRAVELING by air to Washington, D.C., this winter, be sure to look out your window. You don’t want to miss the lovely patchwork of monuments that covers the city, or the scenic curves of the Potomac River, or the giant dolphin-shaped balloons within arms-reach of your seat in coach. But don’t try to pet them. Setting aside the problem of rapid decompression if you open a window, the balloons are property of the U.S. Army, and they don’t like people touching their stuff.

The balloons—I call them balloons, although they’re actually reconnaissance blimps designed to warn against hostile missiles—float about 10,000 feet above the ground, tethered by inch-wide cables, presumably not held on the other end by children at, say, the zoo. Each blimp looks like a huge white dolphin with an unfortunate—and apparently undiagnosed—abdominal growth protruding from its belly. Clearly, it’s something a qualified medical professional should look at. Of course, if it’s just a navel, there’s no problem. But it’s definitely an outie.

There are two of these blimps, each 243 feet long and weighing, well, nothing, because they’re filled with helium, the gas that would have been used in the Hindenburg had the construction crews been smokers. (Smokers may not be smart, but they’re fast learners.) The blimps float above the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, just outside D.C., in some of the busiest airspace on the East Coast, and trail about two miles of cable connected to the ground. What could possibly go wrong?

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