A husband and wife who were arrested Friday night in connection to the drone attacks on Gatwick Airport in London have been released without charges, The Telegraph reports. The middle-aged couple were detained by the Sussex Police until Sunday morning and were questioned about the drone incidents. Police are continuing to search for the drone operator or operators who investigators believe intentionally disrupted the airspace by the major UK airport, grounding thousands of flights during a nearly two-day period during the busy holiday season.
Paul Gait, 47, and his wife, Elaine Kirk, 54, of Crawley, West Sussex, England, were detained by the Sussex Police on December 21, The Telegraph reported. But those who knew them immediately called into question whether they would have been involved in the drone incidents. Gait is a drone and remote-controlled helicopter and plane enthusiast, but friends and family said they were both at work during the incidents and had no reason to be involved. A £50,000 reward has now been offered for information leading to the capture of the drone operators.
Gait’s boss at the window-fitting company where he has worked for several years told the newspaper Gait was working when the drone attacks took place and said he would be shocked if he had anything to do with the incidents. John Allard told The Telegraph that Gait has previously flown drowns as a hobby, but has never run into issues with the law over it. He said Gait’s wife, Elaine Kirk, has never shown an interest in flying drones.
Authorities said Gait and Kirk were arrested on suspicion of disrupting services of civil aviation aerodrome to endanger or likely to endanger safety of operations of persons, but were later released without charges, according to The Telegraph. The law is part of the Aviation and Maritime Security Act of 1990, which carries a potential life sentence in prison.
But on Sunday, police said they were no longer suspects.
“Both people have fully co-operated with our enquiries and I am satisfied that they are no longer suspects in the drone incidents at Gatwick. It is important to remember that when people are arrested in an effort to make further enquiries it does not mean that they are guilty of an offence and Sussex Police would not seek to make their identity public,” Sussex Police Detective Chief Superintendent Jason Tingley said in a statement. “Our inquiry continues at a pace to locate those responsible for the drone incursions, and we continue to actively follow lines of investigation.”
“We ask for the public’s continued support by reporting anything suspicious, contacting us with any information in relation to the drone incidents at Gatwick,” Tingley added.
“Paul Gait and Elaine Kirk have been released without charge and no further enquiries are pending. They have been in custody for over over 36 hours and we would ask that their privacy, and their family and friends’, is respected at this time,” Gemma Allard told The Telegraph in a statement on behalf of the couple. “No further comment will be made by the couple today and they are liaising with police regarding a press conference tomorrow but this is yet to be confirmed.”
Sussex Police said in a statement, “As part of our ongoing investigations into the criminal use of drones which has severely disrupted flights in and out of Gatwick Airport, Sussex Police made two arrests just after 10 p.m.” on December 21. “Our investigations are still on-going, and our activities at the airport continue to build resilience to detect and mitigate further incursions from drones, by deploying a range of tactics. We continue to urge the public, passengers and the wider community around Gatwick to be vigilant and support us by contacting us immediately if they believe they have any information that can help us in bringing those responsible to justice.”
The drone attacks began Wednesday night, December 19, and continued through Friday morning, leading to more than 1,000 flights being canceled or diverted from the second-busiest airport in the UK during the popular holiday travel season. More than 140,000 travelers were affected by the shutdown of Gatwick’s lone runway. The airport shutdown lasted until Friday morning. Airport officials are still working to recover from the disruption and return activities at the airport to normal. During the shutdown, local police and the military patrolled the area near Gatwick in hopes of finding the drone operators.
“Our runway is open and we aim to run a full schedule on Saturday 22 December. Passengers should expect some delays and cancellations as we continue to recover our operations following three days of disruption and are advised to check with their airline before travelling to the airport,” Gatwick Airport said Saturday in a statement. “Safety is Gatwick’s top priority and we are grateful for passengers’ continued patience as we work to get them to their final destination in time for Christmas.”
There has been no motive revealed for the drone attacks, but some have speculated that so-called “eco-warriors,” concerned with the environmental impact of airplanes and airports were behind the disruption, according to The Times of London. The newspaper reported that environmental activists were being considered as potential suspects for the incidents by investigators as airports are frequent targets of climate change activists. There is no indication that Paul Gait and Elaine Kirk are tied to environmental activism.
Here’s what you need to know about Paul Gait and Elaine Kirk-Gait and the Gatwick Airport drone disruption:
1. Gait’s Boss Said He Is a ‘Reliable Family Man’ & He Was ‘Busy on Site Working’ While the Drone Attacks Were Happening
Paul Gait’s boss, John Allard, the owner of Allard Double Glazing in Crowborough, told The Telegraph, “Paul normally comes in around 7.45am and I remember on those days he then worked late on site on a fitting job. I don’t think it can be him. He was busy on site working when it was happening.” Allard, who has owned the company for 40 years, told the newspaper he knows Gait has flown drones in the past as a hobby.
“He is a reliable family man who has been with me for 17 years and has never given me any problems at all,” Allard told The Telegraph. “He may have picked up the interest in model flying from me because I’ve been doing it for 40 years. I also know Paul’s wife Elaine and as far as I know she has no interest at all in drones or model flying.”
Neighbors also were shocked by the arrests, telling The Telegraph that Gait is a hard-working family man. A friend, who did not want to be named, did say Gait had an issue with neighbors, according to The Daily Mail, “Paul told me that his neighbours hedge was quite overgrown and that he was having difficulty parking his van. He said that he’d asked the neighbour if he could trim the hedge back slightly but he refused and so they didn’t speak again after that. Paul said that people would ask if they could have a go on his drone or helicopter when they saw him flying but he told me ‘there’s no way I’d allow that as these things can be dangerous in the wrong hands.'”
The friend added, “I haven’t seen Paul or Elaine all day. They have two dogs, a Jack Russell and a pug, which they take out for walks every day but we’ve not seen them at all. From what I know of him, I’d be staggered if he’s the one responsible for crippling Gatwick and causing all that chaos.”
A neighbor, who also asked not to be identified, told The Telegraph, “Paul is very hard working. He works for a window fitting company and usually leaves home around 7am every day and does not get back home until 6pm. He used to race remote control cars up and down the road and then got into drones but I have not seen him flying one for more than a year. I noticed some activity outside his house on Friday night and saw him moving his car. I was surprised to see it was still there when I got up this morning because he usually works on Saturdays. I would be really surprised if he had anything to do with what has been going on because he seems like such a nice normal bloke.”
Gait’s boss, Allard, told The Daily Mail, “We can account for Paul’s movements between the hours of 7am and 5pm last Monday to Friday. He’s been part of a three-man team fitting glass doors and windows in the Crowborough area.
Gemma Allard, Paul Gait’s ex-partner and the daughter of his both, told The Mirror, “He was with me at work the whole time the drones were up. Paul comes to my house every morning – I’ve got a child with him. The morning of this going on, he was sitting in my front room having a cup of tea with me – and the rest of the day he was working. They need to let him out and catch the right people. Paul wouldn’t do this, no chance.”
Sussex Police said the couple remained in custody as of Saturday morning. They asked anyone with information to contact investigators.
“Anyone with information about the incident or who may have suspicions about the drone operators is asked to report online or call 101 quoting Operation Trebor. If you see anyone acting suspiciously in the area of the airport, please dial 999 immediately,” Sussex Police said in a statement.
The arrests come after a delivery driver, Paul Motts, told The Sun he saw a man who appeared to be in his 30s carrying two drones in a country lane about 4 miles from the Gatwick runway Thursday night. The man was wearing “hi-vis clothing,” Motts told the newspaper. “I was delivering a parcel and drove past a suspicious man in fluorescent cycling gear crouching over a large drone which was all lit up. It was a big thing with lights on its arms and roughly 4ft across. He had a smaller drone, about 2ft across, next to him. He was leaning over and doing something to it. He was totally focused and did not look up when I drove past,” Motts said.
Motts added, “It looked like he was packing the drones away. Two minutes later we turned around and came across him cycling away. I expect he wanted to disassemble the drone as quickly as possible and get away as fast as he could. It was pretty weird considering what had happened at the airport during the day.”
2. Gait & Kirk Have Been Married Since 2013 & Gait Is a Former Soldier
Paul Gait and Elaine Kirk have been married since 2013, according to their Facebook profiles. Gait is the father of a preteen son and a daughter in her 20s, his social media page shows. According to his Facebook page, Paul Gait lives in Crawley and studied at Crawley College. Elaine Kirk went to Dunraven Secondary School, according to her Facebook page.
According to The Daily Mail, the couple live just 5 miles away from Gatwick Airport. Crawley is a town of about 100,000 and is located under the airport’s flight path.
According to The Mirror, Gait served in the military as a soldier. His father, Francis, told the newspaper his son was an army gunner and served tours in Northern Ireland and Bosnia.
“He’s had some cracking helicopters and enjoyed flying them, but I think he ended up selling them. He had them ages ago. It’ll be a year or two. I can’t believe Paul’s involved in this, I just can’t,” Francis Gait told The Mirror. “The times this thing was flying in the daylight – when Paul was at work. I think they’re just dying to pin it on somebody. I can’t believe for one minute it’s true. It’s just mad.”
The Mirror reports that police were searching their £590,000 detached home and a vehicle parked outside on Saturday. Paul Gait’s mother told The Mirror, “We’re just so shocked. It’s not the sort of thing Paul would do. He’s a nice person.”
Ian Kirk, Elaine’s ex-husband, told The Mirror, “She hates toy aircraft. There’s no way on Earth she would be involved and she will be absolutely devastated and heartbroken.” He said Elaine Gait is an office worker.
“They invited us to a barbecue to celebrate Elaine’s 50th and were utterly charming,” an unnamed neighbor told The Mirror. “Nobody would ever expect them to be involved in something like this. They’re a really nice couple, perfect neighbours.”
Neighbor Bob Simpkin told The Daily Mail, “Paul is what you could describe as an average person, a hard working builder. I was shocked to hear what happened, I do believe the police have got the wrong people – this is totally out of character.
Simpkin added, “Last night I heard a lot of screaming and shouting, when I looked outside I saw a woman being led to a police van by a female copper. The van was parked outside their house and I saw a woman led into the van. Paul and Elaine have been together for about five years – I sometimes see a young lad of about ten there too.”
He said he doubted they were involved. “Elaine doesn’t seem the person to get involved in any trouble – she works a lot too from what I can tell. Were they the couple who flew the drone at the airport? I don’t think so. Their drone was just not big enough, it is only about a metre wide. Paul is just not stupid enough to do that – I’ve got the feeling the police are wrong. He is more into his model helicopters, I’ve seen him use them, but only around his property.”
Another neighbor, who did not give his name, told The Daily Mail, “Another neighbour, who wished not to be named, said: ‘They don’t seem the type to do this, they’re down to earth. He’s a builder and she works somewhere six days a week.
The neighbor added, “Paul likes his gadgets, he only ever used his drone in the street – you could hear all that buzzing sound. I haven’t seen them use it recently but its winter so it’s dark. He used to do it in the street, everyone was quite impressed, especially the kids. They keep themselves to themselves really.”
3. Gait’s Facebook Page Features Photos of RC Helicopters & Model Planes, but Authorities Believe Commercial-Grade Drones Were Used at Gatwick
Another neighbor, who asked not to be identified, told The Daily Mail, “He’s like a big kid to be honest with his gadgets. In the summer he’s always stood outside the front of his house flying either a drone, a helicopter or aircraft. He had a few drones, one that I saw him flying a few times was pretty big, he used to have to put it in his van sideways so it’d fit. I spoke to him a few times but he never mentioned anything about Gatwick or complaining about the noise from planes. We are over the flightpath, though, and it can be quite noisy, particularly over the summer but you get used to it.”
Gait’s Facebook page features photos from 2010 of remote control helicopters. In one photo, his son is holding up the RC helicopter. A neighbor, Ludmila Adomako, told The Daily Mail, “I used to see Paul flying a small drone around the cul-de-sac from his driveway. The drone wasn’t very big but he would fly a model aircraft and helicopter as well as race a small model sports car around his house.”
Adomako added, “He worked for a double glazing firm. In the summer he knocked on my door and gave me a quote for having some glass in my conservatory replaced. It was the first time I’d really spoken to him. We got on to talking about family and I told him that my daughter had died and he put his arm around me and said ‘I’m sorry to hear that.’ I thought that was quite a nice human touch.”
Adomako told The Daily Mail, “He said that he had a teenage son who was living with his ex-wife and he worried about him all the time. Paul and his wife also had a daughter who lived with them. I can’t say for sure how old she was but it was either late teens or early 20s. The police came round to speak to me about Paul and Elaine this morning and I asked the officers if it was about the drone attack on Gatwick and they said yes. I think I saw Paul last night just after 9pm, someone was moving his van from the street onto his drive. I was sure it was him but maybe it was a police officer. I can’t be sure.”
Gait has also posted in RC helicopter groups on Facebook and likes several pages related to the hobby. On December 17 he wrote on “RC Helicopters For Sale UK,” that he was seeking a “trex600 fbl head,” which is a part for the T-Rex 600 RC helicopter. Gait frequently sold RC and model planes and helicopters on the groups he belonged to for enthusiasts. Some he appeared to have built himself using purchased parts and kits.
Authorities and experts believe the unmanned aerial vehicles used in the drone attacks at Gatwick Airport were much more sophisticated, commercial-level devices. Sussex Police said the drones were 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.”
4. Officials Called the Drone Incidents a Criminal Act & a ‘Highly Targeted Activity … Designed to Close the Airport & Cause a Maximum Disruption in the Run-Up to Christmas’
The drones were spotted near the Gatwick Airport south of London more than 50 times during the disruption.
“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.”
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.
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. on Wednesday. The sightings continued to be reported over the next several hours. All flights were 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 was 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.
“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.
According to The Guardian, the military was 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.”
According to reports, military technology, including some typically used on the battlefield, was utilized to scan for drones, track down the unmanned aerial vehicles and jam signals.
British officials have expressed sympathy to the travelers disrupted by the chaos at Gatwick Airport and assured the public they were 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.”