The rogue drone sightings that brought Gatwick airport to a standstill last December may well have been an “inside job”, the police say adding that the perpetrator may have been operating the drone from within the airport or by someone with extensive knowledge of the airport’s operations.
Sussex police told BBC Panorama that the fact an insider may have been behind the attack was “treated as a credible line of enquiry from the earliest stages of the police response”.
Between 19 and 21 December last year, at the UK’s second busiest Gatwick airport faced widespread chaos after a drone was spotted hovering above the runway, causing more than 140,000 passengers to face flight delays and cancellations. The runway was closed for 33 hours between 19 and 21 December last year – causing about 1,000 flights to be cancelled or delayed.
Despite a massive police operation and a £50,000 reward, almost four months on, no group has claimed responsibility and neither have the police been able to find the culprit. Sussex police said the investigation was continuing but it expected it to take “some months to complete”.
Speaking to BBC Panorama in his first interview since the incident Gatwick’s chief operating officer, Chris Woodroofe said, “It was clear that the drone operators had a link into what was going on at the airport.” Mr Woodroofe, who was the executive overseeing the airport’s response to the attack – the “gold commander” supported his theory with facts-the perpetrator was familiar with the airport’s operational procedures and had a clear view of the runway or possibly infiltrated its communication network. Woodroofe also said that the culprit had carefully picked a drone that would remain undetected by the airport’s DJI Aeroscope detection system being tested at the time.
Woodroofe, who oversaw the airport’s response to the drone attack, described the incident as malicious and criminal. Dismissing criticism that the airport staff overreacted at the time Woodroofe said that it was protocol to close the runway if a drone is present. “There is absolutely nothing that I would do differently when I look back at the incident, because, ultimately, my No 1 priority has to be to maintain the safety of our passengers, and that’s what we did. And it was terrible that 140,000 people’s journeys were disrupted, but everyone was safe.”
The first sighting of the drone was at 21:03 GMT on 19 December and flights resumed only at 05:57 GMT on 21 December with an aircraft landing. Gatwick says it repeatedly tried to reopen the runway but on each occasion the drone reappeared.
Gatwick has since invested £5m on buying anti-drone equipment which includes two sets of the AUDS (Anti-UAV Defence System) anti-drone system made by a consortium of three British companies. “The equipment I have on site today is painted sand yellow because it comes straight from the military environment,” Woodroofe said. AUDS was one of two systems the military deployed at the airport on the evening of 20 December.
Woodroofe said he is confident the airport is now much more protected, with new state-of-the-art technology that can better spot an attack. “We would know the drone was arriving on site and we’d know where that drone had come from, where it was going to and we’d have a much better chance of catching the perpetrator,” he said, adding that every day the airport sends up a drone to test the detection equipment, and “it finds that drone”.
Mr Woodroofe also dismissed the suggestion that the number of sightings had been exaggerated – and another theory circulating online that there had been no drone at all.
These claims were fuelled by the fact that there are no verified pictures of the drone, and very few eyewitnesses have spoken publicly. Police told the BBC they had recorded 130 separate credible drone sightings by a total of 115 people comprising police officers, security personnel, air traffic control staff and pilots.
Mr Woodroofe said that many of the drone sightings were by people he knew personally and trusted – “members of my team, people I have worked with for a decade, people who have worked for thirty years on the airfield, who fully understand the implications of reporting a drone sighting. They knew they’d seen a drone. I know they saw a drone. We appropriately closed the airport.”
Panorama said witnesses reported seeing an extremely fast-moving, large drone with bright lights. Other international airports have installed counter-drone technology too.