Gatwick Airport drone incident

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Gatwick Airport drone incident
Gatwick Airport aerial view - Chris Sampson.jpg
Gatwick Airport in 2012
Date19–21 December 2018 (2018-12-19 – 2018-12-21)
LocationGatwick Airport, West Sussex, England
Coordinates51°08′53″N 000°11′25″W / 51.14806°N 0.19028°W / 51.14806; -0.19028Coordinates: 51°08′53″N 000°11′25″W / 51.14806°N 0.19028°W / 51.14806; -0.19028
CauseReports of drone activity within 1 km (0.62 mi) of the airport boundary
Outcome~140,000 passengers affected
~1,000 flights diverted/cancelled
Arrests2 suspects released without charge

Between 19 and 21 December 2018, hundreds of flights were cancelled at Gatwick Airport near London, England, following reports of drone sightings close to the runway. The reports caused major disruption, affecting approximately 140,000 passengers and 1,000 flights. It was the biggest disruption since ash from an Icelandic volcano shut the airport in 2010. On 21 December, Sussex Police arrested a drone enthusiast and his partner who lived near the airport, but they were released without charge on 23 December, having been cleared of any involvement. In April 2019, Sussex Police said the disruption could have been an inside job.[1]


After reported sightings of drones near Gatwick Airport, thousands of passengers were left stranded owing to flight cancellations; a number of flights diverted to other airports. Police believed a drone operator had intentionally disrupted flights, as whenever the runway was about to re-open, drone sightings were reported again. No act of terrorism was suspected.[2] Police suspected that any drone would have been of an "industrial" class.[3]

The military were deployed on 20 December following a request from Sussex Police for help to end the unprecedented situation.[4][5] Authorities later stated that the suspected drone operator was within a 5-mile (8 km) radius of the airport.[6] At 23:30 on 20 December, the airport confirmed the runway would remain closed and all flights were cancelled for the rest of the evening because of continued reported sightings.[7][better source needed] It reopened with limited capacity at around 06:00 on 21 December.[8]

At 09:30 on 21 December, Gatwick Airport chief operating officer Chris Woodroofe described the airport as operating at "almost normal runway conditions",[9] and said it would be "back to normal" by the end of the day.[9] At 17:30, the runway was closed again due to a suspected drone sighting,[10] before being reopened at 18:23.[11]

There were delays to some scheduled flights on 22 December, resulting from the displacement of crews and aircraft.[12] The RAF withdrew on 3 January 2019 after Gatwick spent £5 million on a system to prevent attacks. During the crisis, it had been reported that the Army had been deployed and would be using the Drone Dome – an Israeli-developed counter UAS system – at Gatwick. The Ministry of Defence later confirmed that the RAF Regiment had been deployed and were using an alternative system as the Israeli one had not yet been delivered.[13]

In total, the incident caused approximately 1,000 flights to be diverted or cancelled entirely, affecting the travel of around 140,000 passengers.[12]


The police received 92 sightings of a drone from "credible people".[14] No videos or photographs of the drone were handed to the police.[15][16] The lead investigator from Sussex Police questioned whether there had been a drone at all.[17][18] Giles York, Chief Constable, later said police thought that original sightings were of an unauthorised drone, but it was possible that later sightings may have been of a drone used by Sussex Police.[14] Gatwick Airport offered a £50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrators.[19][failed verification]


A drone enthusiast and his partner from Crawley, less than two miles from Gatwick Airport,[19][20][6] were arrested on 21 December by Sussex Police on suspicion of disrupting civil aviation "to endanger or likely to endanger safety of operations or persons",[21][22] a criminal offence with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment under the Aviation and Maritime Security Act 1990.[23] On 23 December, the couple were ruled out of the investigation and released without charge, having been questioned for almost 36 hours.[19]

Their names and photographs were published by some news outlets,[15] and they were named by the local Member of Parliament, Henry Smith, but not by the police.[24][25]

Criticism of arrests[edit]

Sussex Police have been criticised for their handling of the investigation. An employer of one of the suspects said he was at work when the incidents took place and accused the force of ignoring his attempts to contact them regarding the alibi. He told a newspaper that "Although there was a complete lack of evidence, the police ripped his house apart. I know this will mentally destroy him ... Sussex Police have really dropped the ball on this". The police had arrested the couple after learning they were drone enthusiasts who lived close to the airport.[19] In a statement, the couple said they felt "completely violated" by the police and media intrusion into their lives.[26] Speaking to the BBC on 29 December 2018, Giles York, the Chief Constable of Sussex Police, said he felt sorry for the couple, but thought their arrest was justified.[27] No further arrests were made.[28]



Stewart Wingate, Chief Executive of Gatwick Airport, issued a statement and apology.[29] Chief Operating Officer Chris Woodroofe added:[30]

I think what's clear from the last 24 hours is that drones are a UK aviation issue, or even an international aviation issue. We have had the police, we have had the military seeking to bring this drone down for the last 24 hours and to date that has not been successful.

The Civil Aviation Authority announced it considered the event to be an "extraordinary circumstance", and therefore airlines were not obliged to pay any financial compensation to passengers.[31]

The British Airline Pilots' Association said:[32]

We understand that detection and tracking equipment has now been installed around the perimeter of Gatwick and the expectation is that if and when the drones reappear, they will be detected and the airport will close again. It is possible that the rogue drones may go undetected around the perimeter or could obstruct the flight paths outside the immediate detection zone.


Alex Neill, Which? managing director for home products and services, said:[33]

This situation will understandably be frustrating for both the airlines and the tens of thousands of passengers travelling to and from Gatwick ahead of Christmas. Whilst these extraordinary circumstances unfortunately mean you are not entitled to compensation, you may still be entitled to meals, refreshments, hotel accommodation or transfers. You don't have to cancel your tickets though, as depending on the length of the delay, your airline should be providing you with alternative travel options or accommodation.


Prime Minister Theresa May said in a statement:[34]

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.

In a tweet, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) said Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson had confirmed the military deployment and said: "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."[35]

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling told Sky News: "One of the things we're going to be doing is temporarily lifting the night-flight restrictions at other airports so more planes can get into and out of the country."[36]

Shadow Secretary of State for Transport Andy McDonald said:[37]

Events at Gatwick Airport highlight the urgent need for clear rules on the use of drones near airports. There has been growing concern over the increasing number of near misses between drones and manned aircraft and the Government has been too slow to act. The Government should fast-track the introduction of a regulatory framework to protect against the misuse of drones and ensure the safety of UK airspace. This should include a drone exclusion zone around airports.

Karl Turner, the former Labour Shadow Attorney General for England and Wales, said on BBC Newsnight:[38]

There should be wider exclusion zones around airports. I think the law says one kilometre at the moment, it should probably be five kilometres according to the experts. The government should have brought this legislation forward, it's been an abject failure and I blame Chris Grayling. He should have been in the House of Commons today making a statement and explaining to MPs why the Government has failed to bring this legislation forward.

On 24 December, security minister Ben Wallace announced that "The huge proliferation of such devices, coupled with the challenges of deploying military counter measures into a civilian environment, means there are no easy solutions... However, I can say that we are able to now deploy detection systems throughout the UK to combat this threat."[39]

Other drone incidents[edit]

There were previous drone incidents at Gatwick Airport on 3 July 2017[40] and 9 July 2017. The latter was not made public until 15 October 2017.[41]

On the evening of 28 April 2019, Gatwick Airport had to close temporarily due to an unconfirmed sighting of a drone. This was the first sighting since the incidents of December 2018. 3 flights had to divert to London Stansted Airport, and returned to Gatwick Airport around 90 minutes later.[42]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Gatwick drone attack possible inside job, say police". BBC News. Retrieved 15 April 2019.
  2. ^ "Drones ground flights at Gatwick". BBC News. 20 December 2018. Retrieved 20 December 2018.
  3. ^ Paton, Graeme; Mann, Sebastian; Webber, Esther (21 December 2018). "Gatwick Airport reopens after drone shuts down runway". The Times. Retrieved 25 December 2018.
  4. ^ "Police 'could shoot down' Gatwick drone". BBC News. 20 December 2018. Retrieved 20 December 2018.
  5. ^ McKenzie, Sheena; Mezzofiore, Gianluca (21 December 2018). "Police hunt drone pilots in unprecedented Gatwick Airport disruption". CNN. Retrieved 21 December 2018.
  6. ^ a b ago, Gregory Katz (22 December 2018). "London's Gatwick Airport reopens; drone suspects questioned". The Salt Lake Tribune. Retrieved 25 December 2018.
  7. ^ "1of2 Gatwick's runway will remain closed and all flights are cancelled for the rest of the evening because of continued drone sightings in and around the airfield as we continue to work with police and security partners to resolve the situation". @Gatwick_Airport. 20 December 2018. Retrieved 21 December 2018.
  8. ^ "Flights resume as Gatwick runway reopens". BBC News. Retrieved 21 December 2018.
  9. ^ a b "Gatwick runway reopens after drone chaos". BBC News. 21 December 2018. Retrieved 21 December 2018.
  10. ^ "Gatwick flights suspended again after suspected drone sighting". BBC News. Retrieved 21 December 2018.
  11. ^ "Gatwick says flights now resumed after latest drone scare". Sky News. Retrieved 21 December 2018.
  12. ^ a b Evans, Martin; Johnson, Jamie; Sawer, Patrick; Graham, Chris (22 December 2018). "Gatwick airport drone chaos: Man, 47, and woman, 54, arrested in Crawley - latest live news updates". The Telegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 24 February 2019.
  13. ^ "Gatwick drones: Military stood down after airport chaos". BBC News. 3 January 2019. Retrieved 3 January 2019.
  14. ^ a b "Police's own drones made Gatwick chaos worse".
  15. ^ a b Vikram Dodd (23 December 2018). "Gatwick drone chaos: arrested couple released without charge". The Guardian. Retrieved 23 December 2018.
  16. ^ "1 Broken Drone, No Video, 2 Suspects Released: Gatwick Episode Doesn't Add Up".
  17. ^ "Gatwick Airport Drone: Lots of Second-Guessing, but Not Many Answers".
  18. ^ "Police say it is 'a possibility there was never a drone at Gatwick'". London Evening Standard. 23 December 2018. Retrieved 24 December 2018.
  19. ^ a b c d Martin Evans; Izzy Lyons; Charles Hymas (23 December 2018). "Gatwick drone: Arrested couple are released without charge – as £50k reward is offered to catch culprit". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 23 December 2018.
  20. ^ "Two arrested following drones disruption at Gatwick – UPDATED". Retrieved 22 December 2018.
  21. ^ "Gatwick drone arrests: two people held over disruption of airport". The Guardian. 22 December 2018. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 22 December 2018.
  22. ^ "Two arrested in drone disruption at Gatwick". Mynewsdesk. Retrieved 22 December 2018.
  23. ^ Alex Conte (2010). Human Rights in the Prevention and Punishment of Terrorism. Springer Science & Business Media. pp. 224–225. ISBN 978-3-642-11608-7.
  24. ^ ""Married Couple Arrested Over Drone Incursions At Gatwick Airport"". New York Times. 22 December 2018. Retrieved 26 December 2018.
  25. ^ Joseph, Yonette, " ‘Damaged’ Drone Found Near Gatwick; Arrested Couple Are Freed Without Charge", The New York Times, 23 December 2018. Retrieved 23 December 2018.
  26. ^ Simon Murphy (24 December 2018). "Pair held and released over Gatwick drone say they feel 'violated'". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 December 2018.
  27. ^ "Gatwick drones: Sussex Police 'sorry' for arrested couple". BBC News. BBC. 29 December 2018. Retrieved 29 December 2018.
  28. ^ "No new suspects revealed in Gatwick drones case, a month on from the chaos". The Argus. 28 January 2019.
  29. ^ "Gatwick CEO's apology over 'highly targeted' drone activity – in full". Evening Standard. 20 December 2018. Retrieved 21 December 2018.
  30. ^ "Police consider shooting down drone at Gatwick Airport". RTE. 20 December 2018. Retrieved 21 December 2018.
  31. ^ "Police 'could shoot down' Gatwick drone". Radio New Zealand. 21 December 2018. Retrieved 21 December 2018.
  32. ^ "Pilots' union 'extremely concerned' as Gatwick reopens". Sky News. Retrieved 21 December 2018.
  33. ^ "Gatwick drones: What are the passengers' rights for delayed or cancelled flights?". Sky News. Retrieved 21 December 2018.
  34. ^ Weaver, Matthew; Gayle, Damien; Greenfield, Patrick; Perraudin, Frances (20 December 2018). "Army called in to help with Gatwick airport drones problem". The Guardian. Retrieved 21 December 2018.
  35. ^ "Police 'could shoot down' Gatwick drone". BBC News. 20 December 2018. Retrieved 21 December 2018.
  36. ^ "The Latest: Drones 'highly targeted' to disrupt UK airport". Yahoo News. Retrieved 21 December 2018.
  37. ^ "The Government should introduce a drone exclusion zone around airports – Andy McDonald". The Labour Party. Retrieved 21 December 2018.
  38. ^ "Thousands forced to spend night at airport as chaos continues – as it happened". The Guardian. 21 December 2018.
  39. ^ "UK now has systems to combat drones – Ben Wallace". BBC News. 24 December 2018.
  40. ^ "Drone causes Gatwick Airport disruption". BBC News. BBC. 3 July 2017. Retrieved 29 December 2018.
  41. ^ "Drone near-miss 'put 130 lives at risk'". BBC News. 15 October 2017. Retrieved 4 January 2019.
  42. ^ Flights diverted after Gatwick Airport 'drone sighting'

External links[edit]