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Aviation

UK army deployed as ‘deliberate’ drone raid shuts London’s Gatwick Airport, stranding thousands of passengers

  • Drones were seen repeatedly flying over the airport, forcing hundreds of flights to be cancelled
  • Police in a helicopter were hunting the drone operators, while the military was mobilising specialist equipment
PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 December, 2018, 1:47am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 December, 2018, 8:20am

The British Army has been deployed at London Gatwick Airport after a “deliberate” raid by drones at the busy airfield forced it to be entirely shut down on Thursday, stranding tens of thousands of passengers as hundreds of flights were cancelled and diverted.

“We are deploying specialist equipment to Gatwick airport to assist Sussex Police,” a spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said in a statement.

British Prime Minister Theresa May said the government was working to resolve the situation, while the global airline body IATA called for new measures to reduce the risk of such rogue drone operations including a registry of higher calibre drones, bigger fines, and jail sentences.

“We look forward to accelerating the cooperation between the industry, drone manufacturers and governments to reduce the risks of rogue drone operations,” IATA said in a statement.

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Alongside tougher fines and prison for offenders, IATA called for greater education for operators and technological solutions to prevent drones entering restricted airspace.

Dozens of police are hunting for the operators of at least two drones, which were first spotted over Gatwick’s runways on Wednesday night, then were seen throughout Thursday. A helicopter was being used in the pursuit.

“We believe this to be a deliberate act to disrupt the airport,” Gatwick police commander Superintendent Justin Burtenshaw said in a statement. “However, there are absolutely no indications to suggest this is terror related.”

Authorities resisted shooting the drones out of the air for fear of stray bullets, Gatwick Chief Operating Officer Chris Woodroofe said.

With flights grounded for more than 17 hours, the army was called in to help.

The airport said all flights would remain cancelled until further notice on Thursday, a day when 115,000 people were expected to pass through, many en route to seasonal breaks.

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“I’m very annoyed because I’m with two kids, a three-month-old and three-year-old,” said passenger Ani Kochiashvili who was bound for Georgia but spent six hours overnight sitting on a plane with her children.

“They require a lot of space and food and changing and all that, and the airport is crazy busy so it’s challenging,” she said by phone among thousands camped in the terminal.

Flights were halted at 9.03pm on Wednesday after two drones were spotted near the airfield, triggering the biggest disruption at Gatwick since a volcanic ash cloud in 2010.

Prime Minister May offered sympathies to upset travellers and said police may be given greater powers against drones in the future.

“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,” she said. “At this particular time of year this is particularly difficult for people.

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“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.”

Her spokesman condemned the drone flying as “irresponsible and completely unacceptable”.

With an upsurge of public enthusiasm for drones, there has been an increase in near-collisions by unmanned aircraft and commercial jets in recent years.

The number of near misses between private drones and aircraft in Britain more than tripled between 2015 and 2017, with 92 incidents recorded last year, according to the UK Airprox Board regulator.

Gatwick’s Woodroofe described one of the drones as a heavy industrial model.

“The police advice is that it would be dangerous to seek to shoot the drone down because of what may happen to the stray bullets,” he told BBC radio.

Drone expert Peter Lee, of Portsmouth University, said he and others had been anticipating disruption.

“An airport would be a preferred or obvious target for somebody who wants to either just create mischief or criminal damage,” he said. “One of my concerns about today is that it may well encourage copy-cat incidents because you can achieve a high amount of disruption for a very, very low cost.”

It is illegal to fly drones within 1km of a British airport boundary, punishable by five years in prison.

Even after Gatwick reopens, the backlog and disruption are expected to last for days.

Gatwick said that it was working with its airlines, the biggest of which also include British Airways and Norwegian, on recovery plans once the runway reopens.

It apologised on Twitter, adding that safety was its “foremost priority”.

Gatwick, which competes with Europe’s busiest airport Heathrow, west of London, had previously said Sunday would be its busiest day of the festive period.

Passengers took to Twitter to share their stories.

One waiting at the airport said: “At Gatwick Airport, drone chaos, surprisingly good natured, but complete mayhem.”

Additional reporting by Bloomberg and The Guardian