Exactly 5 years ago today, London Gatwick was disrupted for days after reports of mysterious drones near the airport. Dozens of flights were canceled, resulting in hundreds of thousands of passengers being stranded. The incident was widely reported in the international press and ‘Gatwick’ is still cited when discussing regulations. But FOIA requests by a British drone enthusiast show that no drone has ever been proven.
Air traffic disrupted for days
On December 19, 2018, reports of mysterious drones were received at Gatwick Airport, one of London’s busiest airports. This led to major disruption to air traffic, with cancellations and delays of hundreds of flights, affecting thousands of travelers during the busy Christmas period. The airport was even temporarily closed due to safety concerns.
Sussex Police played a central role during the incident. As the local police unit, they were responsible for investigating reports of drone activity at Gatwick Airport. Their duties include searching for the drone(s), identifying those responsible, and assessing the security risks to the airport.
Despite extensive efforts, the police force was unable to intercept drones or identify those responsible for the alleged drone activities. Sussex Police’s role was further complicated by conflicting statements and ambiguities in their communications about the incident. All this led to questions and criticism about the effectiveness of the response and the true nature of the incident.
No drones proven, according to FOIA requests
The aftermath of the Gatwick incident led to a tightening of regulations around drones and an increase in security measures at airports. And Gatwick is still regularly mentioned in the media when it comes to the dangers of drones. But drone enthusiast Ian Hudson (UAVHive), who conducted in-depth research via FOIA requests, states 5 years later that there is no concrete evidence that drones flew near Gatwick Airport in the period in question.
“My investigation has revealed that neither the National Police Air Service, which from the first evening under the command of West Yorkshire Police, conducted surveillance over Gatwick from police helicopters with advanced thermographic cameras, nor the Royal Air Force, which operated the Falcon Shield drone detection system arrived on site on the evening of December 21, observed drones. In addition, the United Kingdom Airprox Board has formally confirmed that no Airprox incidents related to drones have been recorded at Gatwick,” Mr. Hudson summarizes the results of his FOIA requests.
‘Basing decision-making on facts, not assumptions’
Despite the fact that no concrete evidence has been provided for the presence of drones, Gatwick is still used as an excuse for stricter rules. For example, the British aviation authority CAA UK referred to the Gatwick incident in a recent policy document, much to Hudson’s frustration.
“These findings shed new light on the events surrounding Gatwick and call for a rethink of the way such incidents are used as a basis for future regulation. It is essential to base decision-making on facts and not on unfounded assumptions, especially when these could lead to significant regulatory changes,” said Mr. Hudson.