Six days before Christmas, an airport security officer at Gatwick was finishing his shift at about 9pm when he saw something unusual. There were two drones, each in the shape of a cross, flying over the south perimeter road with sharply flashing lights.
The worker reported what he had seen – and chaos ensued. About 1,000 flights affecting 140,000 passengers were cancelled or diverted across three days. Tempers flared, and hearts were broken. Two people were arrested and released without charge. The army was brought in.
For all that activity, 11 days since Christmas and more than two weeks after that initial report, very little is known about what actually happened. Confusion has been the running theme, with suggestions that there might not have been any drones in the first place – or that many of the 100-plus sightings could have been anti-drone drones operated by the police.
In addition to the passengers whose Christmas getaways were grounded, there were two additional victims in Paul Gait and Elaine Kirk, the 47-year-old and a 54-year-old arrested by Sussex police on 22 December, three days after the first drone sighting.
Gait and Kirk were cornered into giving a public statement outside their home in Crawley on Christmas Eve, in which they said they felt “completely violated” by the arrest and subsequent media coverage.
They were identified in many newspapers and the Mail on Sunday ran the couple’s picture on its front page next to the headline: “Are these the morons who ruined Christmas?”
Calm has been restored to the small cul-de-sac a mile from the airport’s southern perimeter. Few neighbours are willing to talk to the media after, as one resident described, “constantly having our door knocked by journalists”.
As the military took away anti-drone technology on Thursday, three plane spotters resumed their positions on the southern perimeter fence, huddled in the cold outside the offices of Scorpio Worldwide, a travel retail firm. Drones were far from their mind; they were more concerned with the difficulties Gatwick’s infrastructure presents for aviation enthusiasts.
As for the police, they have fallen silent. The last update was on Saturday, when the chief constable of Sussex police, Giles York, said he was absolutely certain a drone was flown over Gatwick airport, but admitted that contradictory statements from other officers at his force “amplified the chaos” caused by the incident.
He was alluding to the car-crash interview, in which one officer, DCS Jason Tingley, said there was “always a possibility that there may not have been any genuine drone activity in the first place”.
It remains the case that apart from Gait and Kirk there have been no arrests. Two damaged drones recovered nearby have been ruled out of the inquiry. No individual or group has come forward to claim responsibility. Gatwick, which has offered a £50,000 reward, is very much on a “business as usual” footing.
The most repeated question in the pages of commentary given to the incident has been: could this or will this happen again?
There have been some legislative changes to deal with drones but ultimately experts say these will not help to identify rogue operators.
“The civil law is not really adequate to address the risk of drones,” said Alison Oldfield, a real estate litigation partner from law firm Eversheds Sutherland. “It only gives a property owner the right to use the airspace above his land to such height as is necessary for the ‘ordinary use and enjoyment’ of his land.
“What that means in practice in this context is untested but is generally thought to be confined to a fairly limited height above the ground. With the increasing use of low-flying drones, we can perhaps expect the law to develop in this area.”
Identifying the owners of registered drones is simple, she said. “The challenge though is to identify rogue perpetrators – or those who currently have no obligation to registration. In practice that can be difficult.”
Many people say the warnings to ministers were long in the offing. Lord Harris, in his review of London’s preparedness to respond to a major terrorist incident, highlighted the potential for drones to disrupt flights.
Writing for the Observer last month, he said: “I was by no means the first. The year before, a House of Lords committee issued similar warnings, as had academics, technical experts and airline pilots.
“A few months ago the government finally made it illegal to fly a drone above 400ft or within a kilometre of an airport. This was too little, too late and the penalties nothing like sufficient to stop those responsible from creating havoc with the holiday plans of thousands of families last week.”
The Labour party is calling for a full inquiry into the Gatwick chaos. Andy McDonald, Labour’s shadow transport secretary, said: “The government has neither understood nor fully assessed the risk posed by drones to the UK’s national infrastructure. It has not undertaken anything like appropriate contingency planning. And it has not prepared properly, despite protective technology being available.
“It’s obvious that drones should not be able to get anywhere near an airport before being taken down. But the government has dithered and delayed on regulating drones.”
He added: “The delay in bringing forward legislation is indicative of this government’s failure to concentrate on the day-to-day business in front of them. They have taken their eye off the ball. The scale of disruption is unacceptable and it demands that we find out how this was allowed to happen, which is why Labour are calling for an independent inquiry.”
On Thursday, it emerged that both Gatwick and Heathrow will spend millions of pounds on anti-drone equipment in the wake of the December incident. While a spokeswoman for Gatwick would not say exactly what equipment had been installed since the drone chaos, she said the airport’s owners had bought a system that provided a similar level of protection to the hardware provided by the military and had installed it about a week ago. Heathrow’s spokeswoman also confirmed the reports of its investment in military-grade anti-drone equipment were accurate.
Chris Grayling is understood to have chaired a meeting of police, aviation and defence chiefs on Thursday to discuss what lessons can be learned. The transport secretary spoke with the chief constable of Sussex police, along with representatives from the Ministry of Defence, the Metropolitan police, the Civil Aviation Authority and the Home Office.
It is understood the aviation minister, Lady Sugg, who was also present at the meeting, will meet with the heads of all UK airports next week to discuss their counter-drone strategies.
The lack of progress by the police has led to criticism from some. Katy Bourne, the police and crime commissioner for Sussex, defended the response.
“Sadly, we have seen further examples of those armed with a little knowledge seeking to exploit the incident as a failure of policing,” she said. “That is not something I recognise.
“Indeed, the approach being taken by Sussex police in both the investigation and prevention measures has been first class given the extraordinary and unprecedented circumstances within which they have been operating. Even the Met police have said that they would not be doing anything differently.
“The rush to find answers has blinded some commentators to where the real focus of concerns should be – our national capacity to tackle drone incursions and how information and assets are shared and deployed.”