Police have arrested two suspects – a 47-year-old man and 54-year-old woman from Crawley – believed to be the perpetrators of a bizarre incident that brought air traffic at Sussex’s Gatwick airport to a grinding halt for 36 hours this week when drones were spotted flying over the airport’s runway, according to the BBC.
Due to the risks of a collision between the drones and commercial aircraft, departing and arriving flights at Gatwick were cancelled for 36 hours, impacting the travel plans of some 140,000 people and leaving some stranded in the airport for more than a day. If found guilty of violating laws prohibiting the piloting of drones within one kilometer of an airport, the couple could face up to 5 years in jail – not to mention the enduring ire of the British people. Though delayed passengers are still in the process of being accommodated, Gatwick said Saturday it aimed to run “a full schedule” of 757 flights carrying some 125,000 passengers. During the disruption, some 1,000 flights were cancelled.
According to the Sun, the couple was arrested after a cyclist was spotted “frantically” packing a drone into a bag near the airport.
Sussex Police said today: “A 47-year-old man and a 54-year-old woman, both from Crawley, were arrested in the town on suspicion of disrupting services of civil aviation aerodrome to endanger or likely to endanger safety of operations or persons.”
“They remained in custody at 11am on Saturday.”
A witness who said he spotted one of the suspects described the scene to the Sun:
It comes as driver Paul Motts, 52, told The Sun how he spotted the man “in this 30s and in hi-vis clothing” in a country lane four miles from the runway on Thursday night.
The EDF Energy manager said: “I was delivering a parcel and drove past a suspicious man in fluorescent cycling gear crouching over a large drone which was all lit up.”
“It was a big thing with lights on its arms and roughly 4ft across.”
“He had a smaller drone, about 2ft across, next to him.”
“He was leaning over and doing something to it. He was totally focused and did not look up when I drove past.”
“It looked like he was packing the drones away. Two minutes later we turned around and came across him cycling away.”
“I expect he wanted to disassemble the drone as quickly as possible and get away as fast as he could.”
“It was pretty weird considering what had happened at the airport during the day.”
Police said the arrests were made following raids “in the Gatwick area”. Though they added that the investigation into the incident is ongoing.
Sussex Police confirmed last night they had arrested a man and a woman after raids were carried out “in the Gatwick area”.
Police Superintendent James Collis said: “As part of our ongoing investigations into the criminal use of drones which has severely disrupted flights in and out of Gatwick Airport, Sussex Police made two arrests just after 10pm on 21 December.”
“Our investigations are still ongoing, and our activities at the airport continue to build resilience to detect and mitigate further incursions from drones by deploying a range of tactics.”
“We continue to urge the public, passengers and the wider community around Gatwick to be vigilant and support us by contacting us immediately if they believe they have any information that can help us in bringing those responsible to justice.”
The runway at Gatwick reopened this morning but passengers are urged to check their flights before travelling as as delays and cancellations are set to enter a fourth day.”
To bring about an end to the chaos, the Army employed “drone killer” technology used in the fight against ISIS to try and disable the drones, though it’s unclear how effective the technology was (particularly after the drone made at least one return appearance after flights resumed on Friday). The technology uses radio-jamming frequencies to crash the drones. The Israeli-made tech has been used in the fight against ISIS in Mosul last year.
Ruling out the possibility that the drone activity was some kind of accident, a spokesman for Gatwick said the flight patterns suggest the drone flights were a deliberate attempt to paralyze traffic on the busy holiday weekend. At one point, the drone was flown close to Gatwick’s control tower and even flashed its lights at police officers in what the Sun described as a deliberate taunt.
Now that the incident is (hopefully) resolved, here’s a timeline of events that showcases just how disruptive the incident was. Given the relatively high ROI in terms of disruption compared with the cost and difficulty in pulling this off, airports around the world are on high alert for copy cat attacks that could prove even more disruptive.