UK police still have no proof of the drone attack that grounded 1,000 Gatwick flights

Chaos and confusion.
Chaos and confusion.
Image: Reuters/Amir Cohen
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As you’ve probably heard, drone sightings at Gatwick Airport grounded 1,000 flights from Dec. 19 to 21, affecting the holiday travel plans of about 140,000 people and wreaking havoc during some of the busiest travel days of the year.

But just how many drones caused this massive disruption, who was operating them and, most importantly, why? Over a week and a half later, there are still no answers, no culprits, and no drones recovered. The best British authorities can offer is that they are “absolutely certain” there was at least one drone.

On Saturday (Dec. 29), in an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today program, Sussex police chief constable Giles York revealed the latest on what the area’s police force had learned about the incident at Britain’s second-largest airport. He said there had been 115 reports of drone sightings to police, including 93 confirmed as coming from credible sources, such as law enforcement and air traffic employees.

But beyond those eyewitness accounts, things get rather muddy. A couple that had been arrested by police and held for 36 hours was released without charge, and said that they felt “violated” by their experience and the release of their identities. York also had to concede that it was possible that police drones launched to catch the perpetrator(s) during the ordeal caused “some level of confusion”—suggesting that some of the reported sightings could have been of drones operated by police. Additionally, York said that two drones found nearby were ruled out of being involved in the incident, and searches of 26 sites in the immediate area were not fruitful. Further complicating matters, last week a senior Sussex police officer was quoted saying there was a possibility there hadn’t ”been any genuine drone activity in the first place.” This was later called a misstatement, and blamed on poor communication.

In the midst of all this ambiguity, it’s no wonder that York felt the need to clarify in Saturday’s interview that he did indeed believe there was a drone attack: “I’m absolutely certain that there was a drone flying throughout the period that the airport was closed,” the constable said.

But compared with early reports of multiple drones being used in a “highly targeted activity” to provoke an airport shutdown, “a drone” sounds like a bit of a deescalation—especially given the gigantic disruption those initial reports caused.

Gatwick is still offering a reward of £50,000 for information leading to those responsible.