Rogue drones flying near Gatwick Airport has led to a shutdown of the lone runway at the London airfield for nearly 24 hours in what authorities are calling a targeted criminal attack on the major travel hub during the busy holiday season. More than 800 flights set to carry at least 100,000 passengers have been canceled.
Authorities have not determined the motive of the drone pilot or pilots and have been searching the area around the airport in an effort to locate the suspect or suspects. Airport officials told passengers Thursday night to not come to the airport through the morning of Friday, December 21, as delays are expected to continue because of the drone sightings. There have been more than 50 sightings, with the last sighting coming between 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.
“On behalf of everyone at Gatwick I would like to repeat how sorry we are for the inconvenience this criminal behaviour has caused passengers and we share their real anger and frustration that it has happened,” airport CEO Stewart Wingate said in a statement. “This is a highly targeted activity which has been designed to close the airport and bring maximum disruption in the run up to Christmas. We are working very closely with the police and the security services to try to resolve this for passengers.”
Gatwick Airport is located south of London near Crawley in West Sussex, England, and it is the second-busiest airport in the UK, behind only Heathrow Airport. It is also the eighth-busiest airport in Europe.
Sussex Police said in a statement, “Public safety is paramount and we will take all available actions to disrupt this deliberate act. There are no indications to suggest this is terror related.
Officials said that everytime they prepare to re-open the runway, a drone goes back up, disrupting those plans. Authorities said they have been following leads in their investigation, but have not identified a suspect, but have targeted people of interest. The make and model of the drone is not yet known, officials said. Airport officials said they planned to work through the night Thursday into Friday to “neutralize” the drone operator.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. The Airfield Was Shut Down Wednesday Night When a Sighting of 2 Drones Was Reported Near the Gatwick Airport’s Runway & the Drones Are Believed to Be ‘of an Industrial Specification’
Gatwick Airport CEO Stewart Wingate said the lone runway at Gatwick Airport was shut down after reports of two drones flying in and around the airfield about 9 p.m. The sightings continued to be reported over the next several hours. All flights have been canceled through Thursday night and into Friday morning.
“We obviously wanted to be in a position to reopen the airport again as quickly as possible. We are still receiving drone sightings in and around the Gatwick airfield. Therefore, until we are confident that the issue has been resolved it would clearly not be in the interests of passengers to do so as we could be jeopardising their safety,” said Wingate.
Wingate said the airport is working with government officials and police to resolve the situation.
“We know that everyone, including Government, appreciates the severity of the situation and are very grateful for the active role that the police are taking to try and resolve this. We all recognise the urgent need to take the necessary steps that can lead to services getting back to normal as quickly as possible,” Wingate.
“Each time we believe we get close to the operator, the drone disappears; when we look to reopen the airfield, the drone reappears,” Sussex Police Superintendent Justin Burtenshaw told the UK’s Press Association, according to CNN.
Sussex Police have put out a plea to the public for help in finding the drone operator. “We are appealing for information to help us identify the operators of the #Gatwick #drones. If you know who’s responsible or have any information please call 999 and quote ref 1350-19/12,” the department tweeted. Sussex Police said in a later tweet, “Earlier we appealed for information. We thank everyone for their help but we ask that information shared with us is focused on the identity or location of the #drone operator. We are employing all available options to deal with the drone.”
According to the Sussex Police, the drones seen at the airport are believed to be of “industrial specification.”
Lewis Whyld, CNN drone operator and photojournalist, said about that description:
This means that a device is not an off-the-shelf consumer drone, but something bigger or more complex, or perhaps expertly home-made. He added that drones can have huge ranges, with some of the more powerful ones controlled from up to 10 miles (16 kilometers) away. Drones don’t necessarily need an operator, added Whyld. They could be pre-programmed to follow a route using GPS, he said.
Jon Parker, an aviation expert and former Royal Air Force pilot who is the head of drone training company Flyby Technology, told CNN he has “seen nothing on this scale before” in terms of deliberate disruption of a major airport with drones
“The usual practice is to suspend flights for half-an-hour, which is the usual battery lifespan for drones,” Parker told CNN. “Whoever is responsible for this has had several batteries and have brought their drones back to the ground to put new batteries on them.”
2. More Than 100,000 Passengers Have Been Stranded & Officials Said It Is Impossible to Know How Much Longer the Closure Will Remain in Place
Gatwick Airport officials have said more than 800 flights have been canceled, impacting more than 110,000 passengers.
“We hope passengers appreciate that we must and will always prioritise their safety over everything else. We are all working flat out to minimise inconvenience and have additional staff in both terminals assisting passengers who are waiting. Regrettably we are still not in a position to say when it will be safe to reopen the airport. As soon as we can we will,” Wingate said in a statement.
The Gatwick Airport website states about the “flight disruption” that, “All flights to and from Gatwick are suspended. If you are due to fly later today or are meeting someone from a flight, please do not travel to the airport without checking the status of your flight with your airline first.”
The airport adds, “Gatwick Airport’s runway remains unavailable becasue of continued drone sightings and some airlines have cancelled all flights. There is significant disruption at Gatwick today as a result of what appears to be a deliberate attempt to disrupt flights, and we anticipate disruption to continue into tomorrow.
We are extremely disappointed that passengers are being affected by this especially at such an important time of year. We are working with our airlines to put plans in place to recover our operations once given the go ahead to re-open our runway. We are prioritising the welfare of those at the airport by deploying staff into our terminals to look after people as best we can.”
3. The Military Has Been Called in & Police Officers With Sniper Rifles Were Seen at the Airport, but Officials Have Said They Can’t Shoot Down the Drones
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said there is no known motive for the pilot or pilots of the drone or drones. The drone or drones that have been sighted are commercial drones, Grayling told The Guardian.
According to The Guardian, the military has been deployed to Gatwick to help reopen the airport, but defence secretary Gavin Williams did not detail what the military’s involvement in the operation would be. Police sharpshooters were spotted at the airport, The Guardian reports, but Gatwick COO Chris Woodroofe had previously told reporters that the risk of a stray bullet made it so the drones could not be shut down.
“We will be deploying the armed forces to give them the help that they need to be able to deal with the situation of the drones at Gatwick airport,” Williamson tweeted. “The armed forces have a range of unique capabilities and this isn’t something we would usually deploy but we are there to assist and do everything we can so that they are in a position to open the airport at the earliest opportunity.”
Woodroofe said it is impossible to know when flights would resume. More than 800 flights have been canceled leaving at least 110,000 passengers stranded, Woodroofe told reporters.
4. Officials, Including Prime Minister Theresa May, Have Expressed Sympathy to the Travelers Disrupted by the Chaos at Gatwick
British officials have also expressed sympathy to the travelers disrupted by the chaos at Gatwick Airport and have also assured the public they are doing everything possible to stop the drone operators. A spokesperson for Prime Minister Theresa May said in a statement, “This is a serious incident, it’s causing widespread disruption for passengers. The intention, obviously, is that it should be brought to a close as soon as possible.”
May herself addressed the issue at a press conference:
I feel for all those passengers whose travel plans have been disrupted by this drone activity and the action that has had to be taken in response to it. At this particular time of year this is particularly difficult for people. We have already passed legislation in relation to the use of drones. As it has been made clear, the activity we have seen is illegal and those who are caught endangering aircraft can face up to five years in prison. And we’re consulting on further aspects of this, including further police powers. We will continue to work with the Gatwick authorities in order to bring this to a close such that people will be able to get on to the travel that they were expecting over the Christmas.
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling told the BBC, “We’ll do everything we can to ensure that if Gatwick is not open again quickly that we can get [passengers] away from other airports. There’s a huge amount of effort going on – we’ve got up-to-date technology, we’ve brought special technology into Gatwick to try and track this down.”
Transport Minister Elizabeth Sugg told The Guardian, “Sussex police are in the lead and have officers on the ground. They are doing everything they can to locate drone and its operators. All relevant parts of government including the Department for Transport, Home Office and the Ministry of Defence, are involved in the response.”
5. It Is Illegal to Fly Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, Like Drones, Near Airfields in the UK
It is illegal in the UK to fly drones and other unmanned aerial vehicles near airports. According to The Guardian, “It is against the law to fly a drone higher than 120 metres or in restricted airspace such as near an airport. Further restrictions apply if the drone is fitted with a camera. The Dronesafe website, operated by the aviation watchdog and national air traffic control, outlines a series of guidelines for drone flying, including keeping the drone in eyesight at all times.”
According to The Guardian, near misses between drones and aircraft are on the rise in the UK.
“The rate in the UK has tripled since 2015. The UK Airprox Board (UKAB), which monitors all near misses involving commercial aircraft, said there were 92 between aircraft and drones in 2017. That was more than three times the number in 2015: 29. In 2016, there were 71 and the data is clearly tracking the growth in drone use,” The Guardian reports.
According to CNN International, anyone caught violating the law against flying drones near an airport can face up to 5 years in prison.
Wingate, the Gatwick CEO, said the airport and the government will need to reassess its strategy for dealing with drones in the future.
“Although not for today, these events obviously highlight a wider strategic challenge for aviation in this country which we need to address together with speed – the aviation industry, Government and all the other relevant authorities. It cannot be right that drones can close a vital part of our national infrastructure in this way. This is obviously a relatively new technology and we need to think through together the right solutions to make sure it cannot happen again,” Wingate said in a statement. “In the meantime all our focus is on sorting the current challenge and getting services back to normal for passengers. At the moment, I am not in a position to say with certainty when that might be but everyone is doing whatever they can to help make that happen.”