Hey, Hey, Hey! Fat Albert Blimp Cuts Loose, Knocking Out TV Marti

KEY WEST, Fla. - Fat Albert, the runaway blimp, took TV Marti's transmitters for a joyride yesterday, disabling the U.S.-to-Cuba network for several weeks at least.

The white Air Force blimp, stationed at Cudjoe Key, 18 miles from Key West, broke free from its plastic tether at 6:30 a.m. while it was being lowered from its 10,000-foot elevation for maintenance.

Attached to the bottom of the balloon are the antennae that transmit television signals to Cuba for TV Marti. The last program to be broadcast Wednesday was the 6 a.m. rerun of the daily news, said Antonio Navarro, director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting in Washington, D.C.

The tether broke when the blimp was about 3,000 feet high, Navarro said.

``It just went its own merry way,'' he said. ``I called my wife in Miami and told her to look for the balloon.''

He said Fat Albert first went north, toward Miami, as far as Big Pine Key. It was then pushed west by the wind across Florida Bay.

Air Force reconnaissance planes soon found it; a helicopter then gave chase. The chopper's crew used remote-control radios to instruct the blimp to pull its own plug, letting out the helium.

Fat Albert slowly turned into a limp blimp and drifted west and north into Everglades National Park. It came down near Shark's Point about noon, 70 miles from home.

Navarro hesitated to put a dollar value on the damage but said the equipment may be worth $1 million.

Crews were on their way to pick up the deflated blimp, the transmitter and the antennae. A pilot reported that the television equipment appeared to be caught in a tree, Navarro said.

TV Marti's signal will be broadcast by satellite while the blimp is out of commission, but Navarro said there are few antenna dish receivers atop homes in Havana. He said satellite transmissions of news, sports, special programming and sitcoms have been picked up in South America.