Thursday, 20 December 2018

Gatwick closed until tomorrow as army hunt for drone pilots

London Gatwick Airport remains closed this evening and will be until at least 6am tomorrow morning.  The airport operators confirmed the airport would be closed and urged all passengers scheduled to depart from the airport tomorrow to contact their airline and not travel to the airport. 

Ministry of Defence (MoD) have been asked by local police to help in the hunt for the drones and its pilots said Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson who had confirmed the military deployment.

He 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 so that they are in a position to open the airport at the earliest opportunity."

Men in military uniform were seen arriving at the airport at about 20:00  and liaising with police officers, before going airside at the airport in a number of vehicles.  It is also understood,  from unofficial sources that a MQ9A Reaper drone has been given approval for operational deployment at the airport.  

Sussex Police had been reticent about shooting at the drone because of the risk of stray bullets to the public. They have issued an appeal for information from anyone who may know the identities of those responsible.

Gatwick chief executive Stewart Wingate agreed it was a "highly targeted activity" and added: "It cannot be right that drones can close a vital part of our national infrastructure in this way. This is obviously a relatively new technology and we need to think through together the right solutions to make sure it cannot happen again."

He is still "not in a position to say when it will be safe to reopen the airport". Indeed, as there have been more sightings of the drone over the airfield not long after 2100 on Thursday, Friday operations also look to experience cancellations.  Chief operating officer Chris Woodroofe said: "We will review overnight whether there is any potential to open tomorrow."

Then airport first closed its runway around 2113 on Wednesday night, it opened again at just after 0300 the following morning. However, that resumption of flight operations was short lived as the drones were spotted again near the runway some 44 minutes later, causing flights to be halted.

The laws regarding drone flying were recently changed and it is illegal to fly a drone within 1km of an airport or airfield boundary and flying above 120m - which increases the risk of a collision with a manned aircraft - is also banned. Drone pilots need to remain within visual sight of the drone they are flying and not with 50m of people. More details can be found at  Endangering the safety of an aircraft is also a criminal offence which can carry a 5-year prison sentence.

So many flights due to arrive at Gatwick overnight and this morning have had to divert to other airports, at least 5 went to Manchester, 7 to Luton, 11 to Stansted. other flights have had to go to Birmingham, Cardiff and even further afield, as far as Amsterdam and Paris.

Many in the industry are now believing that this incident will lead to further calls for far more control of the rapidly expanding drone sector. Mandatory licensing has already been mentioned and was previously considered but not adopted as it was thought to be unnecessary and excessive.

Brian Strutton, General Secretary of the British Airline Pilots' Association (BALPA) told the BBC: "We have been working closely with the Department for Transport on these issues, and we were pleased to see new drone laws put in place earlier this year, but we said they do not go far enough. The Government was clear to BALPA that they were open to extending the 1km exclusion zone, and it is now obvious that must happen urgently. BALPA is calling for a 5km exclusion zone.

"This incident also reinforces the need for registration of drones and licensing of operators so that the police can track and trace drones which are being flown dangerously or irresponsibly and for the industry to invest in technology which can detect drones and stop them from being flown near airports and aircraft."

The UK's Civil Aviation Authority issued the following statement "The CAA is offering the following advice to passengers currently experiencing disruption at Gatwick Airport.  Under EU261 regulations, passengers that no longer wish to take their flight can contact their airline for a refund. For those passengers that do still wish to fly, we advise them to contact their airline to understand the options available.”

“Given the reasons for the current disruption at Gatwick Airport, the Civil Aviation Authority considers this event to be an extraordinary circumstance. In such circumstances, airlines are not obliged to pay financial compensation to passengers affected by the disruption."