Sussex Police’s Chief Constable has said he feels “really sorry” for a couple who were held for 36 hours over the disruption of Gatwick Airport by drones before being cleared of any involvement.
But Giles York said the ability of police to declare that Paul Gait and Elaine Kirk were no longer suspects should allow them to get their lives “back on track”.
Mr York also revealed that two drones found by police near the airport have now been ruled out of responsibility for chaos which saw around 1,000 flights cancelled or diverted from December 19-21.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that police have not yet found the drone involved and do not know its model but insisted he was “absolutely certain” that a drone was flying near the runways during the three-day period.
The Chief Constable said he was “really sorry” that Mr Gait and Ms Kirk, from Crawley, West Sussex, were detained in the wake of the disruption, but the grounds for arrest were “well founded”.
He said: “I’m really sorry for what he has experienced and the feeling of violation around it.
“I am really sorry for what he went through, but the reason why we held him was so that we could dispel everything in the first instance. What might have been worse as an experience for him would have been to be released under investigation still.
“We are able to exhaust all our lines of inquiry on that first instance and, however hard it is, able to release him from police custody saying he is no longer a suspect in this line of inquiry.
“That’s why we took the time – in order to allow him the best opportunity to put his life back on the rails.”
Mr York said police had received 115 reports of drone sightings in the area, including 92 confirmed as coming from “credible people”, but admitted there may have been some “confusion” after Sussex Police launched its own drones.
He said a Sussex officer who suggested police were not sure whether there was a drone flying at Gatwick at all was simply trying to explain the investigative approach taken by the force, adding: “I am absolutely certain that there was a drone flying throughout the period that the airport was closed.”
He confirmed that military technology had been installed at Gatwick, “dramatically” improving security at the airport, but he could not rule out future disruption of the same kind.
“I don’t think you can ever rule out anything happening again,” he said.”
“But what we can say is what is at the heart of this is ensuring it is safe for the aircraft to take off and that’s the different position that Gatwick Airport finds itself in today.”