Less than a week after mystery drones grounded flights at the U.K.’s second largest airport, wreaking havoc on as many as 140,000 people’s travel plans for the Christmas period, police have admitted that there may in fact not have been any drones at all.
Gatwick airport reopened on Friday after a one-day shutdown but it appears that investigators are no closer to knowing what actually took place.
The Guardian reports that police released and exonerated a couple who had been detained as suspects, while a senior police spokesperson said there is “always a possibility that there may not have been any genuine drone activity in the first place.”
Indeed, the police are reliant on eyewitness accounts — 67 of them, to be precise — to piece together what happened. The BBC reported last week that two drones flying “over the perimeter fence and into where the runway operates from” were spotted by bystanders late Wednesday, with a third reportedly seen on Thursday morning. Runways were shut for around six hours between Wednesday evening and the early hours of Thursday, before a fuller suspension came into effect after the alleged sighting of the third drone.
Police released suspects Elaine Kirk and Paul Gait on Sunday evening after concluding that they were not responsible for the incident. Their arrest had prompted British newspapers and commentators to berate the pair even before they were charged. The Mail on Sunday shamed them for “ruining Christmas” while TV presenter and former tabloid journalist Piers Morgan was forced to apologize for an earlier tweet that labeled Kirk and Gait as “clowns.”
Despite going down the wrong avenue with the arrest, investigators do have more to work with after they recovered a fallen and damaged drone from the north side of the airport. It is being tested for clues on who piloted it, according to The Guardian.
As we explained last week, the U.K. has specific laws around flying drones near an airport, although it remains unclear exactly what did take place.
The U.K. made amendments to existing legislation this year to make illegal flying a drone within 1km of an airport after a planned drone bill got delayed.
The safety focused tweak to the law five months ago also restricted drone flight height to 400 ft. A registration scheme for drone owners is also set to be introduced next year.
Under current U.K. law, a drone operator who is charged with recklessly or negligently acting in a manner likely to endanger an aircraft or a person in an aircraft can face a penalty of up to five years in prison or an unlimited fine, or both.
Although, in the Gatwick incident case, it’s not clear whether simply flying a drone near a runway would constitute an attempt to endanger an aircraft under the law. Even though the incident has clearly caused major disruption to travelers as the safety-conscious airport takes no chances.