For 36 hours in December 2018, Gatwick airport was on its knees. 140,000 passengers on over 1,000 flights were affected in the most disruptive event since the 2010 Icelandic volcano eruption. What has the industry learned from the event, and can drones be prevented from causing this kind of chaos ever again?
Drone Chaos Timeline
Wednesday 19th December 2018
Gatwick suspended flights in and out of the airport after reports of drones. Some flights were diverted.
Thursday 20th December 2018
As the morning approaches, and all the overnight long haul “heavies” come into UK airspace,@Gatwick_Airport is still closed after yet more fresh sightings of drones!https://t.co/AGOJLyie9B pic.twitter.com/FwJ21jpUjr— Plane Finder (@planefinder) December 20, 2018
The runway reopened in the early hours of Thursday morning – but were closed again after just 45 minutes. Police announced “a deliberate act to disrupt the airport”, but ruled out terrorism.
By lunchtime, Gatwick COO Chris Woodroofe announced that most of the 110,000 passengers due to fly would see face cancellations.
At around 4pm, the military was consulted by the police. Gatwick CEO Stewart Wingate revealed a “highly targeted” campaign, “designed to close the airport and bring maximum disruption”. At 9:30pm, Mr Woodroofe said the airport would remain closed for the rest of the evening.
Sussex Police reported more than 50 sightings of a drone in the past 24 hours. Senior officers consider a tactical option of shooting the drone down.
Friday 21st December 2018
At 6:30am, Gatwick Airport reported the runway was available. At 10am, Gatwick was hoping to be back to normal by the end of the day – but a suspected drone sighting at 5.25pm suspended flights once again.
And we have a landing!! 👏👏👏— Plane Finder (@planefinder) December 21, 2018
After nearly 33 hours since #gatwickdrones started. #MT4801 is the first flight to land @Gatwick_Airport
It could be a positioning flight from EMA but it’s progress! CES201 due in around 20 minutes could be the first “real” flight in! pic.twitter.com/cvkPYhIQNY
One hour later, Gatwick was back up and running – and drones haven’t been reported there since.
Gatwick Drone Questions Remain Unanswered
Just how the drones were able to enter restricted airspace is still unclear. All commercially available drones are locked out of no fly zones in firmware, but this can be cracked and overwritten. Drones can be programmed to fly a certain path and return to base when power is low – making range less relevant in this case.
However, even a fleet of commercially available drones would struggle to disrupt an airport for 36 hours straight, which has led people to speculate that specialised, industrial drones with longer flight times were deployed for the task.
The perpetrators remain unknown. The couple initially arrested for the disruption (two local drone enthusiasts) were released without charge. And it’s still not clear why Gatwick was held hostage. No motive has been found, although most early theories centred around an enthusiast or hobbyist with ill will against Gatwick.
With multiple devices reported and tight coordination, it’s since been deemed much more likely that a group is responsible. Conspiracy theories include a cover up; that there were no drones.
One month on, we still don’t have any new information and speculation runs wild.
What do Airports Need to do Now?
On the 8th of January 2019, a drone was reported over Heathrow, grounding planes for a short period. It was the second major airport shut down due to a drone within the space of three weeks. Of course, with the prevalence of drones, something like this was bound to happen sooner or later. Why were these airports so ill prepared, and what do they need to do to stop further drone threats?
Drone collisions can severely damage aircraft – especially with the kind of large, industrial drones reportedly used in the Gatwick incident.
Gatwick and Heathrow will each invest £5m on anti-drone technology, that can detect and jam communications between a drone and its operator. The tech could be limited against pre-programmed flight paths, which makes things a little harder.
Shooting down a drone isn’t easy, and a miss could cause fatal damage – so authorities are very reluctant to introduce that risk.
As cool as eagles versus drones is – the Dutch police have withdrawn from the programme. As it turns out, eagles are really hard to train, and the drones could inflict serious injuries.
Track Flights, Diversions and Incidents
Plane Finder uses real-time flight tracking to monitor planes in the sky right now. And with our playback feature, you can rewind time to see the effects of the drones at Gatwick – as it happened.