Drones! People can’t stop flying ‘em, whether they’re harmless hobbyists, police looking to expand their surveillance powers, criminals looking to evade them, corporate profiteers, failed assassins, or dumbasses who violate airspace restrictions or interfere with emergency operations out of ignorance, recklessness, or outright malice.
It’s that last category that is presumably the cause of a major disruption in the UK, according to Reuters, which reported that sightings of two drones flying over airways at the UK’s second-busiest airport grounded all flights and turned away landings for hours beginning late Wednesday evening local time:
Flights at London’s Gatwick airport remained suspended early on Thursday, five hours after the UK’S second-busiest airport halted them to investigate reports of two drones flying over its airfield, inconveniencing passengers days before the Christmas holiday period.
Planes were unable to depart, while a number of flights scheduled to land were diverted to other airports, Gatwick said in a statement.
Passengers complained on Twitter that their flights had landed at London Heathrow, Manchester, Birmingham and other cities. Other flights were sent to France and the Netherlands.
Flights eventually resumed at around 3:00 a.m. local time on Thursday, according to the Guardian, but the airport wrote on Twitter nearly two hours later that further sightings of the drones had forced them to again close the runway.
“We will update when we have suitable reassurance that it is appropriate to re-open the runway,” the official Gatwick Airport LGW account wrote. “...We apologise to any affected passengers for this inconvenience but the safety of our passengers and all staff is our foremost priority.”
Eurocontrol, an international organization which coordinates air traffic across Europe, posted in a “tactical update” that flights at Gatwick were expected to be grounded at least 9:00 a.m. local time. (The use of the word “tactical” here is not meant to connote any military meaning.)
According to Reuters, the UK Airprox Board recorded a tripling of near-misses between commercial jets and unmanned aerial vehicles from 2015 to 2017, with 92 such incidents reported in 2017.
Drones are potentially capable of causing much more serious damage to aircraft in flight than birds, which have been associated with numerous airline disasters over the years. (The Federal Aviation Administration writes on its website that “There have been about 194,000 wildlife strikes with civil aircraft in USA between 1990 and 2017,” resulting in hundreds of deaths and fatalities.) A helicopter crash landing in Charleston, South Carolina earlier this year was attributed to a drone sighting, while a 2017 collision between a U.S. Army helicopter and a DJI drone in New York was blamed on an operator who flew his drone out of sight.
There’s no word on whether UK authorities have any leads on who is flying drones near Gatwick Airport or why, though it’s a sure bet that anyone found responsible for the delays will wish they hadn’t.
According to Trusted Reviews, recent changes to UK drone laws stipulate that anyone found guilty of flying a drone above 400 feet or within about 0.62 miles (one kilometer) of airport boundaries can be charged with “recklessly or negligently acting in a manner likely to endanger an aircraft or any person in an aircraft,” which can result in a fine of about $3,160 (£2500) or up to five years in prison.