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Moment that Mattered: Drone sightings bring Gatwick to a standstill

An information board shows scheduled flights arrivals cancelled and diverted at London Gatwick Airport, south of London, on December 20, 2018 after all flights were grounded due to drones flying over the airfield. - London Gatwick Airport was forced to suspend all flights on December 20 due to drones flying over the airfield, causing misery for tens of thousands of stuck passengers just days before Christmas. (Photo by Glyn KIRK / AFP) (Photo credit should read GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images)

 

A Gatwick information board shows flight arrivals on 20th December 2018

At 9pm on 19th December, two drones were spotted flying above Gatwick, causing the suspension of flights in and out of the airport. The shutdown went on for almost 36 hours, during which more than 50 sightings of drones were recorded by the police, who believed it was a deliberate act designed to cause disruption.

If this was the aim, it was a great success. Approximately 1,000 flights were cancelled, affecting the travel plans of around 140,000 people. For many, it felt like Christmas had been ruined. “I was at Gatwick during the standstill and it was horrible,” says Chris Hammond, a former airline pilot who works as a spokesperson for the British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA), a trade union representing over 10,000 UK pilots. “I went there to do media interviews and walked between the terminals. It’s bad enough there just before Christmas anyway, but this was terrible – never-ending queues, crying children… Maybe somewhere else in the world there would have been riots, but at Gatwick it was more a sense of resignation.”

Accompanying this sense of resignation was confusion over what exactly was happening. Three months on it’s still unclear who did it, why they did it and how many drones were used in total. Although it’s understood that the Royal Air Force’s deployment of Israeli-made ‘Drone Dome’ military equipment, which can jam the signal between a drone and its operator, helped bring an end to the crisis, the precise sequence of events is unclear. The confusion was further fuelled by Sussex police when an officer raised the possibility that “there may not have been any genuine drone activity in the first place”. The force later “unequivocally stated” that there had been credible sightings. The police faced further criticism when it emerged that they had detained an innocent couple before releasing them without charge 36 hours later. While Paul Gait and Elaine Kirk were detained, the Mail on Sunday ran the headline “Are these the morons who ruined Christmas?” on its front page.

While the shutdown at Gatwick was dismaying to Hammond, it was hardly surprising. “We’ve been campaigning about drones at BALPA ever since they came into commercial use,” he says. “We could see this coming.” In July 2017, BALPA published the results of an independent study it had funded along with the Department for Transport and the Military Aviation Authority. It concluded that larger hobbyist drones could do serious damage to an aircraft window or shatter a rotor on a helicopter, which according to the organisation “fully justified” its repeated calls for the government to take action against what it calls a “proven threat”. Hammond says that his greatest concern regarding drones is a direct collision with an aircraft engine. He cites the case of US Airways Flight 1549, which was ditched into the Hudson River in January 2009 after a flock of geese flew into the engine. “You saw the damage that bird beaks could do in New York,” he says. “Now imagine replacing bird beaks with high-density plastic and batteries, which are dense pieces of metal. You can imagine the sort of damage they could do.”

The number of near-miss incidents involving drones has increased dramatically in the UK. On 23rd October 2018 it was revealed that a drone avoided the engine of a Virgin Atlantic plane by just three metres over London in June, the closest near-miss yet recorded. “There is a near-miss every three days in the country,” says Hammond, “and that’s just the ones we know about. You can’t see some of the smaller drones.”

“As the number of drones out there increases exponentially, so do the number of drone-related incidents,” continues Hammond. He says that Gatwick was “entirely unprepared” for the seemingly deliberate attempt at disruption, but that it has now strengthened its defences. At the start of 2019 Gatwick confirmed that it had invested millions of pounds in new anti-drone equipment, believed to be a version of the system reportedly used by the RAF in December.

Police officers and airport staff scan the sky for drones at Gatwick airport on 21st December 2018

On 13th March 2019, the UK government extended a drone no-fly zone around airfields from 1km to 5km. The government is also planning to give police new stop-and-search powers to use against people suspected of flying drones near airports, as well as access to the electronic data stored on the machines. The existing punishment for endangering the safety of an aircraft is a prison sentence of up to five years and unlimited fines. Hammond believes this needs to be better publicised to deter would-be offenders. “If people are seen getting banged up maybe others will stop using their drones, or at least be more careful,” he says.

BALPA is happy with the direction things are moving in, although Hammond says it’s frustrating that it took such a disruptive and costly incident to generate changes it believes should have been made a long time ago. “What we’re asking for at this stage is further regulation,” Hammond says. “The sale of drones needs to be controlled so that buying ones big enough to cause damage requires registration. There should be training for drone users and we would also like to see a passive transponder on the bigger machines, a bit like ANPR [automatic number plate recognition] on a car, so if there’s an incident the drone can be linked to the operator.” Even with further regulation, it will be a challenge bringing to a halt a growing trend of drone disruption at airports. The first two months of 2019 alone saw drones ground aircraft at Heathrow, Dublin, Dubai and Newark in the US.

While progress is being made to prevent another incident, it’s unclear whether police are any closer to catching those responsible for the Gatwick shutdown. On 21st February, The Times reported that the police’s leading theory is that a disgruntled current or former employee of the airport was the culprit, since they displayed a detailed knowledge of Gatwick’s layout.

“It was terrible seeing the disruption ruin a lot of people’s Christmases,” says Hammond. “But at least we weren’t dealing with a drone causing an aircraft to crash. Unfortunately, though, it’s not a far-fetched scenario. We pilots believe that one day there will be a collision – and nobody really knows what will happen then.”

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