London Gatwick Airport Shut Down After Drone Sightings

London Gatwick Airport Shut Down After Drone Sightings

The second busiest airport in the United Kingdom remains shut down early Thursday morning after all flights were halted due to reports of two drones flying above the airfield.

This article reflects an ongoing event and will be updated as more information becomes available.

The high demand for and easy availability of small recreational unmanned aircraft over the past few years has led to an increase in near-misses and dangerous situations involving these consumer drones and commercial airliners. While strong legislation is being debated and put in place worldwide, including a law passed in Britain this past July making it illegal to fly a drone within 1 km of an airport, it is difficult to police these devices. Now, reports of two drones being flown over London Gatwick airport have resulted in major disruptions in the travel plans of thousands of delayed passengers, as all flights have been grounded. 

Inbound flights were diverted to nearby airports, including Stansted, Luton, Heathrow, Manchester, and Birmingham. The chaos has rippled from England to other European countries as flights have also been rerouted to Amsterdam, Paris, and Bordeaux. 

Runways were reopened at 3:01 AM Thursday morning, approximately six hours after the initial closure, but were shut down again shortly after, as further drone sightings were reported. The airport remains closed at this time. Gatwick Airport has advised travelers to check their flight status for all flights scheduled to arrive or depart on Thursday December 20. Local police and aviation authorities continue to investigate this event.

Update 22:30 GMT: Gatwick Airport's chief operating officer Chris Woodroofe said that drone sightings have continued at the airport and that Gatwick Airport remains closed. He said, "...it's (Gatwick Airport) closed for the rest of this evening and our intention is to review on an ongoing basis whether we can open tomorrow." Meanwhile, police are now considering whether to use kinetic action and try to shoot the drone down. A spokesman for Prime Minister Theresa May said earlier, "This is a serious incident, it's causing widespread disruption for passengers. The intention, obviously, is that it should be brought to a clos as soon as possible."  

Update 19:46 GMT: Easyjet, the biggest operator at Gatwick Airport, has canceled all flights from Gatwick for the rest of the day as the airport remains shut down. The British Army has become involved, deploying "specialist equipment" to Gatwick. Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson 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..." The Gatwick Airport twitter feed has been posting regular updates on the situation including a statement from CEO Stewart Wingate:

Update 14:46 GMT: Gatwick Airport remains shut down as flights scheduled to arrive continue to be rerouted to airports around Europe. Local authorities have said the drone flights appear to be a deliberate attempt to keep the airport closed. They believe the drones are "of an industrial specification."  Superintendent Justin Burtenshaw, Gatwick Airport policing commander, said: “We believe this to be a deliberate act to disrupt the airport. However, there are absolutely no indications to suggest this is terror-related.” Approximately 110,000 passengers and 760 flights have been affected since the drones were first sighted last night. 

Lead image via Pexels.

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34 Comments

Simon Patterson's picture

Re "This article reflects an ongoing event and will be updated as more information becomes available." I wonder how long it will be before the word "drone" is replaced with "plastic bag"...again...

Michael Jin's picture

Seems like the update didn't go down in the direction you assumed.

Simon Patterson's picture

Of all the the plane spotters who usually hang around airports, nobody has snapped a photo of an industrial sized drone flying around? I'm still skeptical TBH.

Michael Jin's picture

I don't think they shut down a busy airport for half a day, called in military support, and stated publicly that there are multiple drones repeatedly flying near the runways if there wasn't a serious issue. Whatever is going on, it's either drones or aliens. Certainly not a plastic bag.

This wasn't a singular sighting. It was a repeated incursion of the airspace that occurred over an extended period of time.

Simon Patterson's picture

If it was not a singular sighting but it was repeated incursions over an extended period of time, then I seriously wonder why nobody from the general public (or the airport) has published a photo or video of it? No doubt such a record of it would spread like wildfire if it was published.

Airport officials don't close airports lightly, I agree with you there. But there looks like a lot of "reportedlies" are being put before the drone claims without any evidence of who reported it or any evidence of actual drones in the sky.

Maybe the evidence will come out but until it does, I remain highly skeptical, given the number of previous drone claims that turned out to be unfounded.

Aneesh Kothari's picture

All indications point to drones being flown in a deliberate manner to shut down the airport. Scary stuff.

Simon Patterson's picture

What indicators? Aside from people reporting it "reportedly" happened?

Rob Mitchell's picture

Got a feeling the actions taken were not just because of 2 small drones buzzing about that could damage aircraft.
UK is a bit protective when it comes to potential nasty people with nasty stuff attached to drones. There are bigger birds around airports than most drones, they get whacked, planes land.
Not in any way condoning flying around airports, there are idiots out there determined to ruin it for the rest of us, We just don't have all the facts here, the story has been splashed all over the press with the hot topic headline word that is mostly associated with evil. "drone"

Nobody was hurt, a ripple of chaos was created, the world keeps turning and tomorrow it'll be either the Brexit shite or Meghan and Harry back on the front page of the rags.

David Pavlich's picture

Yes, a plane can ingest a drone or a goose and fly. However, when an engine has a strike like this, guess what....the engine is pulled apart to ensure that it hasn't been damaged. Do you have any idea what that costs? Same for a GA aircraft like a Cessna 172. Prop strike? Pull the engine apart. Tearing down a 4 cylinder Lycoming ain't cheap...low to mid 5 figures.

Want to stop this? Make the first offense of airspace violation a $50,000 fine and a year in jail...no appeal. I have no problem with drones. It's like anything else, responsibly used, they make a fun toy or a useful tool.

Rob Mitchell's picture

I know perfectly well what it entails. It's one of the industries I'm working in. Point I was making was, the biggest poop factor there was the fear of nasty people with nasty things stuck to drones.

Totally with you on the fines and punishment though. Slam the shite out of them. You don't fly over or near an airport by accident, you do it because you either have zero common sense or you are up to no good. Either way, you're stealing oxygen from the rest of us and putting a lot of things in danger, plus. The costs. Costs of aircraft out of service, costs of delays, costs of work lost by passengers, etc, etc, etc. Hit the offender up with the bill for that lot. 50k won't even scratch the surface.

Daniel Haußmann's picture

Just imagine the cost that would accumulate for the drone operator. Millions ...

There has to be a way to shoot these things down.

Aneesh Kothari's picture

There is a strong push to develop Counter-UAS measures for both military and civilian use (protecting key infrastructure, prisons, etc.). Unfortunately drone proliferation is outpacing the counter measures to date. Kinetic measures (i.e. live fire) is generally out of the question in non-military situations due to risk of collateral damage.

David Pavlich's picture

I would think that some sort of electronic jamming would be the best route. Live fire in controlled airspace wouldn't be ideal, that's for sure!

David Bailey's picture

I fail to see the link between this news item and the world of photography.

Michael Jin's picture

Many photographers use drones for their photography. Consider this directed toward them as a reminder to be mindful of where they're flying those drones.

Rob Mitchell's picture

'Police send in SNIPERS to shoot down Gatwick drone: Armed officers hunt drone pilot 'deliberately' flying aircraft in and out of runway airspace leaving 800 flights disrupted - as Christmas travellers are told airport will take 'several DAYS to recover'

Boom!

Michael Jin's picture

Aaaand this is why we can't have nice things.

Paulo Macedo's picture

"led to an increase in near-misses and dangerous situations involving these consumer drones and commercial airliners."...do you all fear the good old strike word? Near misses? There are already reported strikes, the most known is the strike with a Sikorsky UH-60 last year.
Yes, there are crazy people with these tools, and the sooner we aknowledge this the better.
Same kind of people who, last year were pointing green lasers at aircraft cockpits near LPPT in Portugal.
Yes, most of us here work with drones and make a living out of them, we respect the laws and do not endanger others.
But we are forgiving those who care for nothing but the likes and shares on social media, sociopath people that thrieve on this kind of crap moves.
When will we aknowledge and punish severely these people? It is up to us, artists, photographers, videographers and drone operators to put an end to this crap, by not finding excuses everytime an episode like this one happens.

Rob Mitchell's picture

Yesterday, I admit, I was a bit like 'oh, another muppet jerking about' Because we do hear of so many of these clowns.

However, I fear whoever is taunting the authorities with this is seriously going to cause issues for anyone with drones in the UK.
Shit is going to hit the fan.

https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-sussex-46623754

Michael Kormos's picture

In the US, they would've just shot the drones down and reopened the airport an hour later. If the drones are "of industrial" kind as they say, they should be large enough to spot from afar. UK could have called the Royal Marines if their police aren't equipped to deal with this. A single attack helicopter ought to do the trick.

This brings to light an emerging market trend - Drone Predators: Drones specifically designed to intercept and disable rogue drones such as this.

Who wants to join me on Shark Tank?

Oliver Kmia's picture

The event happened at night, good luck to find a drone in the dark. Most "industrial drones" are black. Military detection systems are not necessary calibrated to handle drone detection and an attack helicopter would even more useless for the same reason. Plus shooting powerful 30mm cannon rounds from an AH-64 helicopter around an airport wouldn't be the brightness idea...

Michael Kormos's picture

Very easy to spot a drone with IR, especially at night. Those batteries and motors get considerably warm.

A drone was intentionally forced to crash by a helicopter last month. Most US police helicopter have infrared / thermal vision, they can easily track a drone at night and all they need to do is fly over it in close proximity. The downward air from the helicopter forces the drone into an unrecoverable crash.

Oliver Kmia's picture

Do you have a link for the helicopter crash story? I saw something a while ago but it was in Hawaii in bright day light. Doing the same thing at night would be something different...
There is another older story with a video but it seems that the policer choper couldn't sink the drone
https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/ae3kya/did-an-nypd-helicopter...

As for IR, I witnessed some real life anti-drone testing in Europe and most vendors solution didn't work very well. Drones have a very discrete thermal signature. The motors are hard to get because of the prop-wash that dilutes the heat but the battery makes the body visible in some conditions.The FLIR (or similar) systems of first responder helicopters are designed to search and track people on the ground, not small drones in the air. The challenge is initial acquisition as the FOV of these IR sensor is narrow. The "sensitivity" can be increased when you zoom in but it makes the scanning more challenging. They are working on it now but it's not producing great result at the moment unless you get relatively close (but you need to know where the drone is..).
Right now, this is a complex matter and I'm sure the law enforcement agencies in UK are doing their best (and they are among the best in the world).

The end result was the police had to borrow military detection and jamming equipment. They also managed to catch the operators of the most recent drone. They are unsure if there was more than one drone involved. It is possible the couple that were caught may have been copy cats, the police are not saying at this time.
Last month in France the police shot down a drone near the presidential retreat.
I knew it was only a matter of time before the drones would be used as terrorist weapons. I'm surprised that the governments did not take a more proactive approach with the sales and licensing. Right now there are tens of thousands of these drones with unknown owner/operators. How easily someone can put a bomb on one and fly it in a kamikaze mission should have been foreseen by the governments a decade ago.

Oliver Kmia's picture

Yeah, looks like they arrested a couple. Let's see the result of the investigation (no details so far).
The military also deployed the Israeli Rafael's Drone Dome system among other things at the airport.
Another incident in France? Any link? I wrote about the one at Brégançon back in August but the drone was only jammed
https://fstoppers.com/aerial/french-secret-service-jammed-and-crashed-dr...

As for the terrorist nature of drones, it's very hard to counter. Licensing doesn't prevent people to fly illegally. You would have to regulate and control all online businesses like Ebay and aliexpress because anybody can buy parts online and build a DIY drone.

Was only a matter of time. This is why we can't have nice things.

Lee Stirling's picture

If it's dangerous and/or illegal to fly drones near or over an airfield, it's causing severe disruption to air traffic control, messing with thousands of peoples' travel plans, and adding cost to operations, then why don't airfield operators have devices in place to "crash" the drones by disrupting the radio signal controlling them? It's not necessarily safe to "shoot-down" these drones but why not just remove the problem and go on with air ops? Someone who is endangering lives and/or breaking the law by flying these drones at airfields like Gatwick would be foolish to sue for having their drone "crashed" as it would be an admission of their own guilt.

Aneesh Kothari's picture

This absolutely should be deployed at critical sites like airports. I think in this case, the tech just hasn't become widely adopted yet.

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