At 9pm on Wednesday, 19 December 2018, a security guard left work at Gatwick in Sussex, Britain’s second busiest airport. As he waited in the rain for a bus he saw two lighted objects hovering low in the sky inside the complex. He immediately called the airport control tower to report a breach of security and soon afterwards the main runway was closed to air traffic.
As police patrols combed the area clusters of further sightings were made. According to some media reports the object or objects seen was described as an ‘industrial specification’ drone. More reports poured in until 9 am on the following morning, Thursday 20 December.
By daybreak 58 flights into Gatwick had either been cancelled or diverted, five police forces were involved and the Sussex constabulary had sent up its own drones and a helicopter in search of the intruders.
According to a BBC Panorama investigation 140,000 people were caught up in the chaos that followed the airport closure. The 33-hour shutdown at Gatwick led 1,000 flights to be cancelled or delayed at an estimated cost of £50 million to airlines.
Fearing further incursions, on the afternoon of 20 December Gatwick called in special military radar systems that can jam the signal between operator and the drone.
According to new information released in response to Freedom of Information requests by the Department for Transport, further drone incursions were logged at 2.30, 7.45 and 10.30.
The very last confirmed sighting was logged at 5 pm on Friday, 21 December – almost 48 hours after the first drone ‘sighting’.
As the panic spread, there was much speculation about the identity and motives of the drone operators. Some media sources claimed airports were being targeted by terrorists or eco-activist groups for attacks using drones.
Sussex Police continue to believe that a real drone or drones were involved in the Gatwick incident. But at an early stage in their investigation doubts were expressed by one of their own senior officers, Det Chief Supt Jason Tingley, who told the BBC: ‘We cannot discount the possibility that there may have been no drone at all’.
The Gatwick case shares some similarities to the phantom helicopter scare of 1973-74 that began with a series of ‘sightings’ by security guards at quarries where explosives were stored. These convinced senior police officers in northern England the IRA were using a stolen or unregistered machine to steal explosives or for use in a jailbreak. As in the 1974 scare, the Sussex police decision to launch their own helicopter to investigate the mysterious intruder at Gatwick triggered off a spate of ‘sightings’ of the phantom drones.
Among the new drone witnesses was a Brighton-based press photographer, Eddie Mitchell, who drove to Gatwick with his cameras at the ready and two of his own drones locked in his boot. At 5pm on 20 December Eddie saw and photographed what he believed were the white, green and red lights of the drone as it hovered above Gatwick airport. But when he downloaded the images it became apparent that he had actually snapped the Sussex police’s own helicopter!
Eddie later told The Guardian ‘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’.
But the tabloids were less concerned about the identity of the object in Eddie’s photographs. As Ian Hudson who runs the UAV Hive website explained ‘some journalists just didn’t really care if the photos they were using were a drone or not’. One of Eddie’s images continues to appear on The Sun website captioned as ‘the drones’.
Ian told me ‘the idea a couple of drones were flying around in the rain for prolonged periods’ seemed far-fetched.
He also finds it ‘beyond credible’ that not one single clear photograph or video of the intruder has emerged and ‘a number of camera operators that were at Gatwick have spoken out since on social media about their belief there was no drone’.
Even more persuasive is the evidence from the specialist counter-drone systems (known as C-UAS) installed at Gatwick airport in the hours after the first sighting. One arrived at 2.40 on 20 December and another was in place by 9pm when visual sightings were still being reported. Both were capable of detecting both the drones and their transmitter but neither recorded anything unusual.
Despite these evidential problems in April 2019 Gatwick’s chief operating officer, Chris Woodroofe, told the BBC the airport authorities had received 170 separate ‘credible drone sightings’ from 115 people including trusted staff such as security patrols and police officers. ‘They knew they’d seen a drone. I know they saw a drone,’ Woodroofe said. ‘We appropriately closed the airport’.
At the time of writing the operators have never been identified. A married couple from Crawley were arrested by Sussex Police and held in a police station for 36 hours on the basis that they owned a collection of model aircraft. They were released without charge after questioning. In June 2020 Sussex police paid the couple £200,000 in an out of court settlement. No one ever claimed responsibility for the scare or claimed the £50,000 reward offered by Gatwick for information that might lead to those responsible.
In the aftermath, the government passed new legislation to widen the exclusion zone around airports from one to five kilometres. Nationwide, police forces were given more powers to seize drones from their operators and prosecute those who break the strict regulations that prevent them from being flown in sensitive places.
Sussex Police formally closed their investigation of the incident in September 2019 after 18 months, having spent £800,000 on their inquiry, with no further ‘realistic lines of inquiry’. The force said it had ruled out a link with terrorists and there was no evidence ‘it was either state-sponsored, campaign or interest-group led’. They believe it was a ‘serious and deliberate criminal act designed to endanger airport operations and the safety of the travelling public’.
Drone experts including Ian Hudson interviewed by journalist Samira Shackle for her Guardian investigation remain unconvinced. Probing more deeply, what exactly did the witnesses at Gatwick actually see? A moving object with bright lights attached that hovered and was seen fleetingly on a rainy night in darkness. In any other context this would be classified as a sighting of a UFO. From the point of view of the airport authorities and police this must be a drone because UFOs do not exist.
But as Hudson told me, basic facts about the case don’t support this theory. ‘The first sighting was in the rain,’ he said. ‘Drones tend to fail in the rain. In fact there are few models that are capable of any kind of semi-reliable rain use’. Commercial drones also have in-built geofencing software that block them from flying near sensitive locations such as prisons, stately homes and airports.
If the operators were clever enough to hack the drone’s software and evade the regulations to fly them into Gatwick airspace, why did they allow the UAV to carry lights? ‘The normal lights on drones are low power LEDs that couldn’t be seen at a significant distance,’ he said. ‘Also drones aren’t equipped as standard with a strobing light. Any mischievous drone pilot that didn’t want to be caught wouldn’t use lights. You would turn them off in the software or tape them up’.
Hudson and fellow UAV operator Gary Mortimer filed a series of FOI requests asking Sussex police and the Department for Transport for basic information about the more evidential sightings made by police and security guards. Hudson asked for confirmation of one description given to the media at the time that ‘the alleged Gatwick drone was industrial sized’.
But on 5 May this year the DfT admitted their records ‘do not hold any information on the description’. Hudson tells me this suggests neither the police nor the government have any clear account of what the drone actually looked like. He said the DfT had consistently hidden behind national security as a “get out clause” when quizzed about the specifics.
Mortimer briefly flirted with the idea of the scare being a cover for some other covert operation. Now he feels the actual explanation is more prosaic. He told Shackle ‘one option is that something that wasn’t a drone was reported and then the next day, police flew their [copter] there and people saw that’.
As UFO investigations have discovered time after time, ordinary objects can suddenly become extraordinary when people expect to see something unusual – or in this case threatening – in the sky. During the phantom helicopter scare of 1973-74 there was widespread anxiety about Irish terrorists and police confirmation of the sightings triggered off a visual epidemic. Today that anxiety has transferred to other terrorist groups and mysterious drone operators.
The 2018 scare was not the first cluster of mysterious aerial sightings in the vicinity of Gatwick airport. Earlier incidents were reported in 2017 and the MoD’s archived UFO files reveal how on 15 July 1991 the crew of a Britannia Airways Boeing 737 returning from Greece and descending into Gatwick at 14,000 feet saw ‘a small, black lozenge-shaped object’ zoom past at high speed 100 yards off the port side. Ground controllers confirmed a ‘primary contact’ was visible on radar 10 nautical miles behind the 737 moving at a speed estimated as 120 mph. Helium-filled toy balloons could potentially reach this height, but commercial drones cannot.
More recently a series of airprox reports from aircrew involving close shaves with ‘unknown objects’ in Gatwick airspace have been investigated by UK Airprox Board (UKAB) which is sponsored by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and Military Aviation Authority (MAA). Statistics from UKAB’s log reveal a dramatic increase in reports of drones and other ‘unknown objects’ made by civilian aircrews in UK airspace from just seven in 2018 to 31 in 2019.
The log includes an incident from April 2018 that was placed in the highest collision risk category. At lunchtime on 28 April 2019 the runway at Gatwick was temporarily closed after the crew of an Airbus 319 climbing out of the airport saw an object breaking through cloud at 17,000 ft (5,200m). According to the crew ‘it passed below them from the centre of the aircraft and under the right-hand wing’ and was clearly contrasted against the clouds. The small object ‘appeared dark green in colour with a white light on top’ and may have been hovering. As a result of this close shave, three other aircraft were diverted to other airports.
Further details of recent UKAB investigations and the possible sources of the current UFO-drone epidemic are explored in my article Close Encounters of the Drone Kind in Fortean Times 406 (June 2021). Special thanks to Ian Hudson and UAV Hive for information used in this article.