Gatwick Airport drone incident

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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; both 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. With 140,000 passengers and 1,000 flights affected, it was the biggest disruption at Gatwick since its closure following the 2010 volcano eruptions in Iceland.

On 21 December, Sussex Police arrested two people who lived near the airport. They were cleared of any involvement and released without charge two days later, and later awarded compensation for wrongful arrest and false imprisonment.[1] In April 2019, Sussex Police said the disruption could have been an inside job.[2] No culprit or evidence of drones was found; some commentators have suggested there was no drone, and that the incident may have been caused by mass panic. Police maintain the incident was a malicious attack.


On 19 December 2018, shortly after 9pm, a security officer reported seeing two drones while waiting at a bus stop at Gatwick Airport: one above a vehicle, and the other above a nearby perimeter fence. Due to the risk of collision with aircraft, Gatwick immediately closed its only runway and suspended all flights.[3] Within half an hour, six more sightings had been reported, five from police officers.[3] A number of flights were cancelled or diverted, stranding thousands of travellers.[4] By midnight, 58 flights had been cancelled.[3]

The following day, Gatwick prepared to reopen the runway several times; each time, more drone sightings were reported.[3] This led police to believe the operator was intentionally disrupting flights, and may have access to airport radar or communication systems.[3] No act of terrorism was suspected.[5] Police suspected that any drone would have been of an "industrial" class.[4]

The military were deployed on 20 December, along with officers from five other police forces,[3] following a request from Sussex Police for help to end the unprecedented situation.[6][7] Authorities later stated that the suspected drone operator was within a 5-mile (8 km) radius of the airport.[8] Gatwick reopened with limited capacity at around 06:00 on 21 December.[9]

At 09:30 on 21 December, Gatwick Airport chief operating officer Chris Woodroofe described the airport as operating at "almost normal runway conditions",[10] and said it would be "back to normal" by the end of the day.[10] At 17:30, the runway was closed again due to a suspected drone sighting,[11] before being reopened at 18:23.[12]

There were delays to some scheduled flights on 22 December, resulting from the displacement of crews and aircraft.[13] 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.[14]

In total, the incident diverted or cancelled approximately 1,000 flights, affecting around 140,000 passengers.[13]


The investigation into the disruption lasted 18 months, cost £800,000 and involved five different police forces.[3] 170 drone sightings were reported, 115 of which were deemed "credible" by police.[3] No videos or photographs of the drone were handed to the police.[15][16] 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.[17] Gatwick Airport offered a £50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrators.[18] The investigation was closed on 27 September 2019, citing lack of new information.[3] No culprit or evidence of drone use was found.[3]


A couple from Crawley, less than two miles from Gatwick Airport,[18][19][8] 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",[20][21] a criminal offence with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment under the Aviation and Maritime Security Act 1990.[22] On 23 December, the couple were ruled out of the investigation and released without charge, having been questioned for almost 36 hours.[18]

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.[23][24]


Sussex Police were 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.[18] In a statement, the couple said they felt "completely violated" by the police and media intrusion into their lives.[25] 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.[26] No further arrests were made.[27] In June 2020, Sussex Police paid £200,000 to the couple in an out-of-court settlement.[28]



Stewart Wingate, Chief Executive of Gatwick Airport, issued a statement and apology for the disruption.[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]

Mass panic theory[edit]

Despite the number of reports, police received no photographs or videos of drones during the disruption.[3] On 23 December, a few days after the incident, DCS Jason Tingley of Sussex Police said it was possible there had never been any drone activity.[3][40] The next day, following criticism of the statement, Sussex Police chief constable Giles Yorke said he was certain a drone had been used, citing 92 "credible" reports.[3]

Guardian journalist Samira Shackle suggested the incident may have been an instance of mass panic, in which "people attribute a sinister cause to something that had been there, unnoticed, all along". Shackle suggested the initial sightings may actually have been sightings of things other than drones, and cited academic studies showing that humans are inept at assessing distant fast-moving objects.[3] Sussex Police did not respond to repeated freedom-of-information requests made by drone enthusiasts about the nature of the drone sightings.[3] As of December 2020, Sussex Police and Gatwick maintain the disruption was a malicious attack.[3]

Other drone incidents[edit]

There were previous drone incidents at Gatwick Airport on 3 July 2017[41] and 9 July 2017. The latter was not made public until 15 October 2017.[42]

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.[43]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Gatwick drone arrests: Sussex Police pays out £200,000". BBC News. 14 June 2020. Retrieved 14 June 2020.
  2. ^ "Gatwick drone attack possible inside job, say police". BBC News. Retrieved 15 April 2019.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Shackle, Samira (1 December 2020). "The mystery of the Gatwick drone". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 1 December 2020.
  4. ^ a b Paton, Graeme; Mann, Sebastian; Webber, Esther (21 December 2018). "Gatwick Airport reopens after drone shuts down runway". The Times. Retrieved 25 December 2018.
  5. ^ "Drones ground flights at Gatwick". BBC News. 20 December 2018. Retrieved 20 December 2018.
  6. ^ "Police 'could shoot down' Gatwick drone". BBC News. 20 December 2018. Retrieved 20 December 2018.
  7. ^ McKenzie, Sheena; Mezzofiore, Gianluca (21 December 2018). "Police hunt drone pilots in unprecedented Gatwick Airport disruption". CNN. Retrieved 21 December 2018.
  8. ^ a b ago, Gregory Katz (22 December 2018). "London's Gatwick Airport reopens; drone suspects questioned". The Salt Lake Tribune. Retrieved 25 December 2018.
  9. ^ "Flights resume as Gatwick runway reopens". BBC News. Retrieved 21 December 2018.
  10. ^ a b "Gatwick runway reopens after drone chaos". BBC News. 21 December 2018. Retrieved 21 December 2018.
  11. ^ "Gatwick flights suspended again after suspected drone sighting". BBC News. Retrieved 21 December 2018.
  12. ^ "Gatwick says flights now resumed after latest drone scare". Sky News. Retrieved 21 December 2018.
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ "Gatwick drones: Military stood down after airport chaos". BBC News. 3 January 2019. Retrieved 3 January 2019.
  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. ^ "Police's own drones made Gatwick chaos worse".
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ "Two arrested following drones disruption at Gatwick – UPDATED". Archived from the original on 25 December 2018. Retrieved 22 December 2018.
  20. ^ "Gatwick drone arrests: two people held over disruption of airport". The Guardian. 22 December 2018. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 22 December 2018.
  21. ^ "Two arrested in drone disruption at Gatwick". Mynewsdesk. Archived from the original on 22 December 2018. Retrieved 22 December 2018.
  22. ^ 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.
  23. ^ ""Married Couple Arrested Over Drone Incursions At Gatwick Airport"". New York Times. 22 December 2018. Retrieved 26 December 2018.
  24. ^ Joseph, Yonette, " ‘Damaged’ Drone Found Near Gatwick; Arrested Couple Are Freed Without Charge", The New York Times, 23 December 2018. Retrieved 23 December 2018.
  25. ^ Simon Murphy (24 December 2018). "Pair held and released over Gatwick drone say they feel 'violated'". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 December 2018.
  26. ^ "Gatwick drones: Sussex Police 'sorry' for arrested couple". BBC News. BBC. 29 December 2018. Retrieved 29 December 2018.
  27. ^ "No new suspects revealed in Gatwick drones case, a month on from the chaos". The Argus. 28 January 2019.
  28. ^ "Gatwick drone arrest couple receive £200k payout from Sussex Police". BBC News. Retrieved 14 June 2020.
  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. ^ "Police say it is 'a possibility there was never a drone at Gatwick'". London Evening Standard. 23 December 2018. Retrieved 24 December 2018.
  41. ^ "Drone causes Gatwick Airport disruption". BBC News. BBC. 3 July 2017. Retrieved 29 December 2018.
  42. ^ "Drone near-miss 'put 130 lives at risk'". BBC News. 15 October 2017. Retrieved 4 January 2019.
  43. ^ Flights diverted after Gatwick Airport 'drone sighting'

External links[edit]