Police ask Army to help find Gatwick drone pilots who caused travel chaos for 110,000 passengers

Police and Gatwick bosses have called in the Army to help find the drone pilots whose activity shut down Britain’s second-busiest airport.

Up to 110,000 passengers may have had Christmas flights cancelled or delayed by the ‘deliberate act to disrupt the airport’, police said today.

The military were contacted as the hunt for the devices and whoever is operating them becomes more and more desperate, with flight cancellations at the UK’s second busiest airport continuing to soar.

The runway has been closed almost constantly since two drones were spotted being flown inside the West Sussex airport’s perimeter at 9pm on Wednesday.

Police have described the devices as “industrial” models but said there were no indications the drones were terror-related.

Speaking to BBC News, Superintendent Justin Burtenshaw said: ‘This has been going on for 10 hours. Each time we believe we get closer to the operator, the drone disappears and when we look to reopen the airport, the drone reappears.’

Drones flying close to Gatwick have grounded flights (PA/file pic)

Asked if he thought police would catch the operator, he added: ‘I’m convinced we will. It’s a painstaking thing with the new drones – the bigger the drone, the bigger the reach of the operator, so it’s a difficult and challenging thing to locate them, but I’ve got teams now and I’ve got investigators looking at how we do that, and I’m confident we will.’

Police urged the public to come forwards to help catch the person responsible.

At 11.15am Gatwick said all flights remained suspended and advised passengers to check the status of their flight before heading to the airport.

Flights in and out of the UK’s second busiest airport were suspended at about 9pm on Wednesday after two of the devices were seen near the West Sussex airfield.

Runways were briefly reopened at around 3am this morning but were closed again just 45 minutes later after more drone sightings.

Chris Woodroofe, Gatwick’s chief operating officer told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘We also have the helicopter up in the air but 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 also said thousands of people have been disrupted by the airport closure, adding: ‘There is an enormous amount of disruption.

‘In terms of yesterday’s operation, there were 10,000 people who were disrupted: 2,000 people who couldn’t fly out of Gatwick last night, 2,000 people who didn’t leave their origin destinations last night, and 6,000 people who were on their way here and ended up at different diverted airports.

‘Today we have a raft of cancellations coming through as we work very closely with our airline partners to try and build a schedule.’

The rules surrounding flying drones (PA)
Flights in and out of the airport were cancelled (PA)

People reported being left stuck on planes for several hours while they waited to find out what was going on.

Others told of families running out of food and trying to sleep in ‘freezing’ terminals and crowded planes as they try to travel home for Christmas.

Andri Kyprianou, from Cyprus, said she saw a pregnant woman sleeping on the floor and passengers with infants spending the night in the South Terminal.

She said she got to the airport at 12.30am for a 3am flight to Cyprus via Kiev, only to find it had been cancelled and the next connection in Kiev is on Sunday.

She said: ‘I haven’t slept since yesterday morning, we are very tired. It’s freezing, we are cold, having to wear all of these coats for extra blankets.

‘There were pregnant women, one of them was sleeping on the floor. There were people with small babies in here overnight, we saw disabled people on chairs.’

Lyndsey Clarke, from Southend on Sea, said she was stuck on a plane for more than four hours after it was re-routed to Stansted.

The 27-year-old said passengers were then having to get taxis back to Gatwick after they were finally allowed off the aircraft.

Luke McComiskie’s plane ended up in Manchester, and he described chaotic scenes as people tried to find their way home after more than three hours stuck onboard.

The 20-year-old from Aldershot said: ‘We got told there would be some arrangements with coaches for us when we get out the terminal… it was just chaos and they had only two coaches and taxis charging people £600 to get to Gatwick.’

Joe Bond’s flight from Belfast was diverted to Birmingham, and he joked on Twitter: ‘From the sound of the stewards we might be staying here forever.’

He added: ‘Update. Got a free can of Coke and Pringles. Which has made the delay better.’

Flight tracking site Plane Finder said some flights had been put on a holding pattern over France.

A helicopter sits on the runway at Gatwick this morning (PA)
The helicopter flies over the runway as the search continues for the drones and their operators (PA)

Aviation minister Baroness Sugg said: ‘These drones have been flown illegally and the operators, who have acted incredibly irresponsibly, could face up to five years in jail.

‘We are in close contact with Gatwick Airport as they work with police to safely resolve the situation as quickly as possible.’

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 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.