Soon after 9pm on Wednesday 19 December 2018, an airport security officer who had just finished his shift at Gatwick airport was standing at a bus stop on site, waiting to go home, when he saw something strange. He immediately called the Gatwick control centre and reported what he had seen: two drones. One was hovering above a vehicle inside the airport complex, and the other was flying alongside the nearby perimeter fence. The message was relayed to senior management. Unauthorised drone activity is considered a danger to aircraft and passengers because of the risk of collision. Within minutes, Gatwick’s only runway had been closed and all flights were suspended.
Over the next half hour, 20 police and airport security vehicles drove around the airport, lights flashing and sirens blaring, with the intention of scaring whoever was operating the drones. It didn’t work. By 9.30pm, six more sightings had been logged by the Gatwick control centre, five of them from police officers. Inside the airport, thousands of passengers waited to set off on their Christmas holidays. In the sky above, planes circled, waiting to land. Some were at the end of long journeys, and more than a dozen aircraft were soon dangerously low on fuel.
About an hour after the first sighting, Eddie Mitchell, a news photographer, was on his way to the airport to cover the shutdown when he remembered that he had two drones in his car. Fearing that he might come under suspicion, he rang the police: “I said: ‘I’m heading to Gatwick, please don’t think it’s me!’” Mitchell is licensed by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to fly drones commercially, sometimes in his capacity as a cameraman, sometimes for official bodies such as the fire brigade. But he had good reason to be cautious. Four years earlier, in December 2014, he was trying to get aerial footage of a fire close to Gatwick when police arrested him. His drone was confiscated and he was held for five hours. (He later won compensation for wrongful arrest.)
By midnight, 58 flights had been diverted or cancelled. But there hadn’t been any drone sightings for an hour, and Gatwick tried to reopen the runway. And then, suddenly, the drones reappeared. “We had the feeling that it was going to last all night,” I was told by a former Gatwick employee who did not want to give her name. She was right: into the next day, every time staff prepared to reopen the runway, more sightings were reported. Staff and police speculated that the drone operator had gained access to the flight radar system, or was somehow listening into police or airport communications.
Some feared the drones were being operated by terrorists. “Drones can be transformed into flying suicide vests,” said David Dunn, a drone expert at Birmingham University. In the previous two years, there had been multiple terror attacks around Europe, including the suicide bombing at the Manchester Arena 18 months earlier, which killed 22 people. It had been reported that Isis had used consumer drones to drop grenades in Iraq. After the failed attempt at reopening, Sussex police alerted the Metropolitan police’s counter-terrorism unit. “We were under siege,” the former employee told me. The drones seemed to be taunting them. “It started to feel like a national emergency.”
By about 9.30 the following morning, Sussex police had called in officers from five other police forces to help with the search. A helicopter and several police drones went up to search for rogue drones – to no avail. At 10.20am, police told reporters that although this was a “deliberate act to disrupt the airport”, there was “absolutely no indication to suggest this is terror-related”. There was speculation that it could be an environmental protest, or even an “inside job” – sabotage by a disgruntled ex-employee. Whoever it was, the impact on Gatwick – Britain’s second-biggest airport, with 46 million people passing through each year – was seismic. Later that day, Gatwick CEO Stewart Wingate said that the drone flights were “highly targeted” and had “been designed to close the airport and bring maximum disruption in the run up to Christmas”.
Mitchell, the photographer, was observing all this. “It was panic stations,” he told me. Although the atmosphere in the airport was frenetic, for the photographers – Mitchell remembers there being about 30 of them – it was a long and boring day. None of them caught sight of any drones, and Mitchell was beginning to doubt whether there was one.
At about 5pm, Mitchell was parked at the end of the runway with a colleague when something caught his eye: a red and green light, hovering in the distance. This was it. He reported the drone to police, before jumping out of the car to start snapping. “I thought, we’ve got it, and the idiot flying it,” he said. “That was the money shot.”
But when he opened up the image on his computer, ready to send to his editors, he realised he’d made a mistake. The image did not show a drone. It was a helicopter hovering 10 miles away; between the darkness and the distance, his eyes had played a trick on him. “If I’m making a mistake – and I fly drones two or three times a week – then God help us, because others will have no idea,” he said. He called police to retract his reported sighting.
At 6pm, military trucks arrived at Gatwick with an anti-drone system designed for battlefield operation, and installed it on the roof of the south terminal. This system can track and disable drones; it works by jamming the radio frequency connecting the drone to its controller. At 9.30pm, Gatwick’s chief operating officer Chris Woodroofe announced that the airport would remain closed overnight because of new drone sightings. The military system was operational by around 10pm. It did not pick up a single thing.
In the early hours of Friday 21 December, the runway reopened for the 10th time. At 5.58am, a plane from East Midlands airport landed at Gatwick. The drone incident was over.
The airport had been closed for 33 hours. More than 1,000 flights had been cancelled, and more than 140,000 passengers affected. “It showed the serious risk of drone intrusion, and how quickly that could bring an airport to its knees,” said John Strickland, an aviation consultant. In total, 170 drone sightings were reported, 115 of which were later deemed “credible” by police. But neither Mitchell, nor any of the news crews camped out for two days, had managed to get a photo or video. Neither had any of the thousands of passengers and airport staff on site; no one who reported a sighting had captured an image on their phone.
The Gatwick incident was the first time a major airport was shut down by drones, and it distilled deep cultural anxieties – from the threat of terrorism and unconventional attacks by hostile states, to our fear of new technology. Two years later, it remains unsolved, despite a police operation that lasted 18 months, cost £800,000 and involved five different forces. Conspiracy theories abound online: people claim that the incident was a setup by companies selling counter-drone systems to market their products, that it was a coverup for a cyber-attack on the airport, or that it was staged to bring down the share price ahead of a Gatwick share sale (a week after the drone incident, a majority stake was sold to a French airport group).
Despite lack of evidence – or indeed any leads or convincing motives – Sussex police and Gatwick maintain it was a sophisticated, malicious and well-planned attack. On social media, meanwhile, the Gatwick drone has become a punchline, with many casting doubts on its very existence.
Richard Ryan knows more about drones than most – he is a barrister specialising in drone law at Blakiston’s Chambers, as well as being a registered commercial drone operator. At the time of the Gatwick incident, he lived in Horley, just a mile away from the airport. When he heard the news, his first thought was: “It was only a matter of time.” Despite his enthusiasm about the transformative possibilities of drones, he had long worried that someone might put them to sinister use.
A day or two after the airport reopened, Sussex police asked Ryan to come in for an interview. Ryan quickly established that they were not interested in his professional expertise: they wanted to ascertain whether he had been involved. “I told them that, upon consideration, I don’t think it’s a valuable use of our time, because simply put, it wasn’t me,” he recalled. “I’ve previously worked for the UAS Unit at the Civil Aviation Authority. I’m qualified and responsible in terms of my drone use.” The next day, police put a note through his letterbox saying they had visited.
He was not the only local resident to receive police attention. At about 10pm on 21 December, 12 armed police officers stormed a house in Crawley, a few miles from the airport, and arrested married couple Paul Gait and Elaine Kirk on suspicion of “disrupting services of civil aviation aerodrome to endanger or likely to endanger safety of operations or persons”. Gait, an ex-soldier and window fitter, was a model aircraft enthusiast. Their names leaked to the press. The Daily Mail’s front page the next day splashed on the story, with a photo of the couple next to the headline: “Are these the morons who ruined Christmas?”
They were not, it turned out, the morons who ruined Christmas. During the 36 hours they were held at the police station, it was established that they had been at work while the drones were flying, and despite Gait’s collection of remote-controlled helicopters, they didn’t own a drone. (Kirk’s ex-husband told the Mirror that it was unlikely she was involved because “she hates toy aircraft”.) They were released without charge. Gait delivered a tearful statement to the hordes of reporters outside their home: “As you can probably imagine, we are feeling completely violated. Our home has been searched and our privacy and identity completely exposed.”
While Gait and Kirk were in police custody, there seemed to be another breakthrough in the case when a member of the public found a damaged drone in Horley, near Gatwick’s perimeter fence. A forensics team looked for fingerprints, and digital data that could show where it had flown to and from. But on analysing this data, police ruled out its involvement.
The Gatwick drone incident led news broadcasts and front pages for days. It had cost airlines around £50m, and there were fears that it could spark copycat attacks if the culprit wasn’t found. That weekend, the Sunday Times ran a story warning that terrorist groups were planning to attack airports using drones.
As the days passed and no one claimed responsibility, the theory that environmental activists were to blame seemed less and less likely. But the investigation appeared to be floundering. In the weeks after the incident, police visited Simon Dale, who runs a drone retail and repair shop, to gather background information about drones that might help their investigation. “The parameters they were describing didn’t make sense,” he told me. “[The drone] was apparently flying in and out of buildings close to terminal buildings, almost taunting the tower by one account, which would be very hard to do. They said you’d have to have intimate knowledge of the buildings, so the idea someone was tens of miles away doesn’t add up. They were asking us if it could be controlled over 3G. It seemed quite far-fetched.”
Military drones such as the Reaper or the Predator are capable of flying hundreds of kilometres and staying in the air for more than 24 hours at a stretch. But most drones do not have anything approaching this capability: they vary in size, but most are, even with their arms extended, no bigger than a laptop. They struggle to fly in wind or rain, and have limited battery life. Top-tier consumer drones can travel for up to five miles, but have a maximum flight time of about 30 minutes. Custom-built drones might manage up to a couple of hours, but not much more: larger batteries add weight, which uses up more battery. “If someone were flying drones for hours, they’d need a carload of batteries,” Ryan told me.
On 23 December, a few days after the incident, DCS Jason Tingley of Sussex police publicly expressed what many were thinking when he said: “We are working with human beings saying they have seen something.” Gatwick is one of the most heavily monitored patches of land in the UK, but no hard evidence had been found. Tingley admitted that there was “always a possibility that there may not have been any genuine drone activity in the first place”.
This did not go down well. The following day, Sussex police released a statement reiterating that sightings remained at the forefront of their investigation. On 29 December, Giles York, the Sussex police chief constable, went on the BBC’s Today programme, saying he was “absolutely certain a drone was flying throughout the period the airport was closed”. He told presenters that 115 sightings had been corroborated, and that 92 of these had come from “credible” people. But he inadvertently muddied the water further, saying: “Of course, we will have launched our own Sussex police drones at the time with a view to investigate, with a view to engage, with a view to survey the area looking for the drone, so there could be some level of confusion there.”
Strangely, despite the lack of evidence, the possibility that this might have been a case of human error does not appear to have been entertained for long. Through Crimestoppers, Gatwick offered a £50,000 reward for anyone with information. The investigation marched on.
Drone enthusiast Ian Hudson started filing freedom of information requests (FOIs) in the first half of 2018, seven months before the Gatwick incident. His first few were aimed at local police forces near his home in Yorkshire. How many times had a drone been reported for flying near a school? Or taking contraband into prisons? Had there been prosecutions?
Hudson wanted hard data to counteract what he saw as scare stories about drones. Alongside his day job in IT, Hudson runs a popular drone-related Twitter account, @UAVHive, and is part of Britain’s close-knit community of drone hobbyists, who gather on message boards to swap opinions about the latest tech and share photos taken from great heights. Hudson is sceptical of overblown fears about new technology. Back when mobile phones were becoming popular, Hudson worked in customer service for BT. “I was on the receiving end of worries about how they can burn your brain,” he told me. “I think people fear drones because they’re new.”
On a cold day in September, I stood in a field outside Bradford with Hudson and a group of five local drone flyers. They were all men, mostly in their 30s or 40s, and had got to know each other via hobbyist Facebook groups. They handled their drones with immense care, joking that the machines might be blown away for ever in such high winds. In the presence of a drone, the first thing you notice is the sound – a deep, mechanical thrum as its small, helicopter-like blades spin to propel it into the air. One man, a commercial operator who uses drones for roof inspections, had brought along goggles that allow you to see through the drone’s camera. I put them on, and as the drone took wobbly flight, I was transported over the hills and valleys that lay beyond.
A few years ago, a T-shirt became popular among Britain’s drone flyers. “Before you ask”, it says. “It’s a drone. Yes, it was expensive. Yes, it has a camera. About 25 minutes. Over a mile away. No, you can’t fly it.” Since the Gatwick incident, the men told me, people who see them flying drones are often more hostile than before. I heard several drone flyers repeat some variation of a new saying: “Gatwick drone? There’s more evidence for the Loch Ness monster.”
Civilian use of drones is expanding all the time, as technology improves and costs fall. Back in the 60s, remote-controlled model aircraft became available to consumers, thanks to breakthroughs in transistor technology, and an enthusiastic community sprang up, similar to that surrounding drones today. The CAA estimates that there are currently about 130,000 drone flyers in the UK, operating drones ranging from flimsy toys that sell for £50, up to much more sophisticated machines costing £1,000 or more.
Drones were developed as weapons. Their usage in war hugely increased after 2001, when the US deployed them in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Their association with warfare gives them a sinister edge in the popular imagination, as does the hornet-like buzzing sound they make in flight. There are concerns about their potential use in smuggling drugs or weapons; and the risks to privacy posed by flying cameras. In October 2018, seven men were jailed after using drones to fly £550,000 worth of drugs into prisons in the Midlands and the north-west. In Donbas, Russian-backed separatists have weaponised consumer drones to drop grenades on Ukrainian government trenches.
With his FOIs, Hudson aimed to show that such incidents are rare. His urge to dispel fears about drones comes from a deep enthusiasm about the possibilities that they offer. Drones can deliver medicine to hard-to-reach areas and survey fires to aid rescue missions. They have mundane uses, too; in roof inspections, they save the cost of scaffolding or the risk of climbing a very tall ladder, in the oil and gas industry they are used for remote monitoring of platforms and oil spills. As far back as 2013, Jeff Bezos floated the idea of drone-based Amazon deliveries.
The men at the drone meetup near Bradford were mostly interested in photography – they showed me aerial shots of the ocean and spectacular landscapes. “I’d just never get to see this perspective without a drone,” one man told me, a sense of wonder in his voice. Drone enthusiasts speak scathingly of rulebreakers: this is a self-policing community. They worry that misuse will lead to more regulation, which will hamper their activity. “If someone is doing mischief, which you’ll find on YouTube or whatever, people immediately report them to the police and the CAA,” said Hudson. “There’s no tolerance of people being daft with drones – there’ll be laws made and it’ll affect everyone who has one.”
When Hudson first heard about Gatwick, “I thought this was some absolute idiot and I wanted them caught.” But then he realised “the basic facts don’t add up”. Sussex police had mentioned lights in the corroborated sightings. But if someone had planned the attack, to the extent that they had procured scores of batteries and hacked the drone’s in-built geofencing software – which uses GPS to stop drones from flying into restricted zones such as airports or prisons – then why would they leave the lights on? “You’d disable them,” said Hudson.
Hudson looked at publicly available information: photographs taken during the incident, and statements by Sussex police. Since then, he has identified inconsistencies that he believes undermine the claim that there were drones at Gatwick. Soon after we first spoke, Hudson sent me a long email, including a timeline of tweets and photographs posted during the incident, highlighting contradictions. (“Did he send you four A4 pages with closely typed text and diagrams?” another drone-flyer joked. “It’s one of Ian’s pet subjects.”) The photos he included showed military counter-drone systems being set up on 20 December, the second day of the shutdown – and tweets by Sussex police mentioning sightings after this point, right into the early hours of 21 December. This included one cluster by “credible” witnesses – airport staff and police officers.
After it was set up, the military system should have picked up any drone activity – but nothing was recorded. Hudson wanted answers: “I want to be able to say: ‘Wait a minute, these credible witnesses aren’t all credible.’”
In July 2019, about six months after the incident, Hudson filed his first FoI to Sussex police: “Can you confirm the date and time of the final sighting of the December 2018 drone at Gatwick?” Under the Freedom of Information Act, public bodies have to respond within 20 working days. Often this is refused, on grounds of national security or the time it will take to find the information. But Sussex police did not even send a refusal.
Gary Mortimer, editor of the popular drone site sUAS News, and a general enthusiast for flying objects (at different points, he has been a hot air balloon pilot and a member of the air force), joined Hudson in filing FoI requests. Apart from a response to a simple question about the cost of the investigation, their requests were almost always ignored or rebuffed. Ryan, the barrister, filed an FoI of his own with Sussex police. It included 14 questions. “I wanted to understand: how on earth did I get on their list?” he told me. These, too, went unanswered, and remain so today.
Soon after the incident, Mortimer had published a blog post questioning whether the supposed drone might have been “a cover for some other operation”. But he also wondered if the real explanation might be more mundane. “One option is that something that wasn’t a drone was reported, and then the next day, police flew their aircraft there and people saw that,” he said to me. “Then it’s Chicken Little and the sky falling in.”
In the months following the Gatwick incident, there was a flurry of alleged drone sightings at airports around the world – though each only resulted in shutdowns of an hour or so. In January 2019, it was Heathrow, and Newark in the US; in February 2019, Dubai. Anxiety about malicious uses of drones intensified in September 2019, when a splinter group of Extinction Rebellion announced plans to shut down Heathrow by flying drones on the runway. The organisers were arrested and no drones were flown. Soon afterwards, the retailer John Lewis said it would stop selling drones due to the risk of misuse. “It feels like people are turning against drones, even though most flyers just want to photograph nice landscapes,” one hobbyist told me.
Before the Gatwick incident, there were already calls for the government to address the potential threat of drone misuse; the British Airline Pilots Association was one prominent voice. In January 2019, parliament published the results of a major drone consultation and brought in more regulation, including compulsory registration for drones over a certain weight, and greater police powers to land and seize them. This had been under way before Gatwick, but the incident focused political attention. In the weeks that followed, Gatwick and Heathrow spent £5m on counter-drone systems. A more far-reaching drones bill is on its way through parliament.
In theory, it should be fairly easy to assess how often drones get close to planes, but in fact, this is disputed. When two aircraft come too close to each other, the incident is known as an “airprox”. Pilots or air traffic controllers report such incidents to the UK Airprox Board, which exists to enhance air safety by reporting “the circumstances, causes and risks of collision” in UK airspace. It recorded 280 such events in 2017, 40% of which related to drones. The overall number of reported incidents has increased by a third since 2016.
In late 2018, Simon Dale, the drone retailer, set up a website called Airprox Reality Check, where he digs into the data for drone sightings reported to the board, assessing what else might have been in the area. “More often than not, it’s a full-sized helicopter,” he said.
In the US, the Federal Aviation Authority said it gets more than 100 reports every month from citizens who believe they’ve seen a drone near a plane or an airport. Back in 2015, the Academy of Model Aeronautics analysed these sightings and found that just 3.5% actually involved a near-miss between aircraft and a drone.
Sussex police and Gatwick Airport both firmly stuck to the line that the December 2018 drone sightings were credible, since they were reported by police officers and airport employees who knew what they were seeing. “We can all accept that some of the sightings were wrong – that’s obvious,” said the former Gatwick employee who did not want to be named. “But these were colleagues who had been working at airports for 20, 30 years, and knew how serious it was.”
Back in the 60s, Percy Walker, the director of Britain’s Ministry of Aviation accident inspection branch, said that eyewitnesses to aviation accidents are “almost always wrong”. Subsequent academic studies support the notion that it is difficult for the human eye to accurately assess fast-moving, distant objects. If people often think they have seen a drone when they have, in fact, seen something else, then what else could have happened at Gatwick?
In April 1954, a strange phenomenon swept across the town of Bellingham, Seattle, and other communities in Washington state. People began to observe “windshield pits” on their cars – minor damage that, when magnified, can look like a tiny crater in the surface of the glass, usually caused by sand or other small debris colliding with the windscreen at high speed. As the phenomenon was reported in the press, more people noticed marks and chips on their screens. A few weeks before the sightings began, the US had exploded a huge hydrogen bomb in the Pacific Ocean, and many blamed these nuclear tests. Others believed a nearby navy communication tower was warping the glass. Residents panicked. By 15 April, almost 3,000 windscreens had been affected, and the mayor asked for assistance from President Eisenhower.
Today, the Seattle windshield pitting epidemic is often cited as an example of mass panic, in which people attributed a sinister cause to something that had been there, unnoticed, all along. Two days after the appeal to the president, Seattle police issued a statement saying that the pitting epidemic was “95% public hysteria”. Sightings suddenly stopped.
This kind of mass panic has been documented throughout history, and all over the world. More recently, the “Croydon cat killer” was alleged to have brutally murdered hundreds of cats in and around London, leaving the bodies, in the words of one journalist, “in places children are sure to find them”. The alarm was raised by a cat shelter, and reports in the local press were picked up nationally and then internationally – despite the fact that there was no discernible pattern, or evidence of human involvement. As the story gained prominence, more people reported cat murders: ultimately, more than 500 were called in. But after an investigation spanning several years, in September 2018, the Metropolitan police concluded that the cats had been hit by cars or eaten by foxes.
Is it possible that something similar happened at Gatwick? “In a state of anxiety, we often focus attention on innocuous stimuli,” said Gary Small, professor of psychiatry at UCLA and an expert in mass hysteria. “There’s a lot of anxiety about terrorism. There’s a lot of anxiety about drones.”
In the year that followed the Gatwick drone incident, police knocked on 1,200 doors, took 222 witness statements and identified 96 persons of interest. But on 27 September 2019, Sussex police formally closed the investigation, saying that “without new information coming to light, there are no further realistic lines of inquiry”. The force said that the incident was not terror-related, and that there was “no evidence to suggest it was either state sponsored, campaign or interest-group led”. The force cited “corroborated witness statements” in its conclusion that at least two drones were in operation through this period, and that it was a “serious and deliberate criminal act designed to endanger airport operations and the safety of the travelling public”.
In June 2020, Sussex police settled out of court with Paul Gait and Elaine Kirk, agreeing to award the couple £200,000 in damages and legal fees for their wrongful arrest. No one else has been charged over the drone incident, and the couple’s legal team said that “serious doubts remain as to whether there were, in fact, any drones flown over the airport”.
In public, the airport and police stuck firm to the idea that there was definitely a drone incursion. But privately, some have doubts. “We work on evidence, and I haven’t seen any. That’s really all there is to say,” one police officer with knowledge of the case told me.
Still, many people remain convinced. Dunn, the professor at Birmingham University who studies the security risks posed by drones, said “there is a circuit of people interested in this topic”, referring to drone researchers and airport personnel, “and they’re fairly categoric that while the later sightings may have been a crane, initially there were absolutely drones”.
At the time, there was no clear guidance on what an airport should do in the event of a drone incursion, accidental or hostile, so closing the airport was a reasonable decision. “It’s not an industry that can take a flippant view about any threat to safety, and there can be a high price for that,” said John Strickland, the aviation consultant.
“Pre-Gatwick, it was like the blind leading the blind, because nobody really knew what to do. But since Gatwick, a lot of bright people have focused on how to solve this problem,” says Richard Gill, CEO of Drone Defence, a security consultancy that provides counter-drone technology to governments and big corporations. This view is shared across the industry. “While we may never know what really happened at Gatwick,” says Adam Lisberg, the corporate communications director at drone manufacturer DJI, “it was the event that forced the aviation and drone industries around the world to find solutions so that a single drone sighting doesn’t close down an airport.”
Few people disapprove of improving systems for keeping airports safe, but hobbyists feel that suspicion is being cast on anyone who flies a drone at all. In Bradford, one man told me he had sold his drone – it was too difficult to find areas where flying was permitted. Even Ian Hudson told me that he barely flies his drones any more. “It’s just too much hassle,” he said.
But drones remain a passion – and he is persevering with his FOIs. He recently got a tranche of heavily redacted emails from the Department for Transport, showing discussion of counter-drone systems in the days that followed the incident, but nothing directly related to the investigation. Sussex police, in particular, has been remarkably unresponsive. “There’s been no explanation, and it just comes across as people covering arses,” Hudson said. “I want to get to the truth.”
Most people with any interest in the Gatwick drone have already made their mind up. Either the initial sighting was a mistake, and subsequent sightings were the result of mass panic or confirmation bias, as proved by the technical unfeasibility of what was described. Or there was a drone, and the same technical challenges are evidence that it was an extremely sophisticated attack, one that we should be wary of dismissing.
“I cannot rule out the capabilities of a mystery drone, but the more seemingly magical powers ascribed to it, the more sceptical you become,” said Lisberg. “Every time a bit of information challenges the initial version, it seems to confirm how sneaky it really was. You find yourself doing mental gymnastics. At a certain point, you’re really chasing drones.”
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