NEWS
21/12/2018 14:20 GMT | Updated 21/12/2018 18:08 GMT

Gatwick Drones Disruption: Police Identify ‘Persons Of Interest’ As Hunt For Suspect Continues

Questions raised over the government's response.

UPDATE: Flights Suspended Again After Another Suspected Drone Sighting

Police hunting the Gatwick Airport drone fiend have a list of “persons of interest” as the search for a suspect goes on.

Sussex Police said it had yet to capture drone equipment despite the force drafting in the army to help combat the threat to Britain’s second-biggest airport.

At least two devices were seen hovering close to Gatwick’s runway just after 9pm GMT on Wednesday prompting a 32-hour shutdown and the mass cancelation of flights.

Some 115,000 passengers had been impacted by Friday morning.

PA Wire/PA Images
Flights have resumed following more than 32 hours of disruption at London's Gatwick Airport.

Officers described a game of cat-and-mouse in their efforts to capture the devices, which reportedly zig-zagged across the airfield randomly.

Assistant Chief Constable Steve Barry confirmed the last sighting of a suspect drone was at around 10pm on Thursday night.

ACC Barry said: “In terms of how many perpetrators, there’s a number of lines of enquiry, there’s an ongoing investigation, we’re pursuing that trying to find out who has been responsible for this really malicious criminal behaviour.”

He added that measures to tackle the threat include “technical, sophisticated options to detect and mitigate drone incursions, all the way down to less sophisticated options – even shotguns would be available to officers should the opportunity present itself”.

The force had earlier requested members of the public only phone its tip-off line with information about potential suspects – after they were inundated with calls.

PA Wire/PA Images
Counter-drone equipment is seen on a roof at Gatwick Airport as a police hunt for a suspect continues.

Gatwick’s runway re-opened at 6am on Friday, with over 700 flights scheduled throughout the day.

Pilots’ union Balpa said it understood detection and tracking equipment had been installed around Gatwick’s perimeter and that if the drones reappear the airport will close again.

[READ MORE: 5 surprisingly ingenious ways to shoot down a drone]

Meanwhile, Labour has raised questions over the government’s response, and argued that ministers now need to admit their own failures led to the chaos at Gatwick.

“The government has neither understood nor fully assessed the risk posed by drones to the UK’s national infrastructure. It has not undertaken anything like appropriate contingency planning. And it has not prepared properly, despite protective technology being available,” said Andy McDonald, Labour’s shadow transport secretary.

“It’s obvious that drones should not be able to get anywhere near an airport before being taken down. But the government has dithered and delayed on regulating drones. Once again, there is a lack of leadership from the transport secretary.”

Gatwick boss Chris Woodroofe advised passengers to check with their airline before travelling to the airport.

“Our advice to our passengers is to check with their airline on each of those flights that they’re intending to get, to establish whether it’s one of the flights that’s being operated or one of the flights that’s being cancelled, before they come to the airport,” he told the BBC on Friday.

“I’d just like to apologise to all of those affected over the last 36 hours – 120,000 passengers who were due to fly to their destinations or arrive into Gatwick who have not travelled.”

Drones: An increasing threat to commercial jets 

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How real is the threat posed by drones?

Drones are an increasing threat to aircraft in the UK.

Statistics from the UK Airprox Board showed 117 “near-misses” between drones and planes in Britain last year.

Statista
Infographic supplied by Statista.

The figure is a 1200% increase on the close calls recorded in 2014.

The data includes incidents involving civilian planes, airliners and military jets.

What is the law around flying drones?

Earlier this year, new laws came into force which ban all drones from flying above 400ft and within 1km (0.6 miles) of airport boundaries.

Drone users who flout the height and airport boundary restrictions could face an unlimited fine, up to five years in prison, or both.

Research funded by the Department for Transport (DfT) found that a drone weighing 400g could smash a helicopter windscreen, and one weighing 2kg could critically damage an airliner’s windscreen.

Have there been any incidents at airports in the past?

According to the British Airline Pilots Association, there were already 117 near misses between manned aircraft and drones up until November this year, compared to 93 for the whole of 2017.

This is not the first time an incident involving drones has been reported at London Gatwick.

In October, it was reported that a drone “put 130 lives at risk” after nearly hitting an aircraft approaching the airport over the summer.

According to the UK Airprox Board, the flying gadget passed directly over the right wing of the Airbus A319 as it was preparing to land at the West Sussex airport in July.

Also in October, a drone collided with a commercial aircraft as it was approaching to land in Canada.

There were six passengers and two crew on the aircraft and the drone connected with its wing, but fortunately it suffered only minor damage, allowing it to land safely at Jean Lesage International Airport in Quebec City.