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Gatwick airport drone flight disruption: Army on standby as drone pilot plays cat and mouse with pol

The army has been called in to join a police operation against rogue drone pilots accused of “deliberately” shutting down Gatwick airport and ruining Christmas for tens of thousands of passengers.

Airport chiefs said the people responsible for the two drones reported near the runway should be jailed. They would face a maximum sentence of five years.

Police said they believed the drones were of “an industrial specification”. The hunt for the drone operator is ongoing with troops now deployed to assist police.

The disruption is expected to last into tomorrow.

Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said: "We will be deploying the armed forces to give them the help that they need to deal with the situation at Gatwick airport.

Armed police are seen next to the runway at Gatwick airport as the hunt for a drone operator continues. (Peter Macdiarmid/LNP)

"Our armed forces are always there to support the civilian authorities."

He did not reveal what measures would be deployed but said the army has a "range of unique capabilities."

Airport bosses were forced to suspend all flights in and out of Britain’s second busiest airport because of fears that a collision could bring down an airliner. Today, by noon, about 350 flights due to carry more than 50,000 passengers had been cancelled or diverted to airports as far away as Amsterdam. It is the worst disruption at Gatwick since blizzards shut it down for two days in December 2010.

In total 110,000 passengers and 760 flights have been affected since disruption started last night.

Aviation experts said it was the first time a major international airport had been completely crippled in this way. There have been a number of drone near-misses reported by airline pilots amid growing fears of a collision.

Aviation minister Baroness Sugg told the House of Lords that the Ministry of Defence, Home Office, Department for Transport were all engaged in the response. “The disruption these drones has caused is extensive and it’s an ongoing operation,” she said. “Sussex police are in the lead and have officers on the ground. They are doing everything they can to locate the drone and its operators. All relevant parts of Government are involved.”

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling and Home Secretary Sajid Javid held talks as the crisis evolved.

However, the authorities were accused of failing to respond quickly enough.

The drones were first spotted just after 9pm last night when Gatwick was closed for the first time, bringing disruption to about 10,000 passengers, mainly on inbound flights.

Gatwick briefly reopened in the early hours — although no flights came in or out at that time — before being shut again at 3.45am.

Superintendent Justin Burtenshaw, Gatwick Airport policing commander, said: “We believe this to be a deliberate act to disrupt the airport. However, there are absolutely no indications to suggest this is terror-related.”

Police officers from Surrey and Sussex forces scoured the perimeter with the help of a helicopter but had been unable to track down the operators by late this morning. Mr Burtenshaw added: “Each time we believe we get close to the operator, the drone disappears; when we look to reopen the airfield, the drone reappears.”

There was speculation that a stunt by environmental or political campaigners could be behind the disruption. The Prime Minister’s official spokesman described the behaviour of the suspects as “irresponsible and completely unacceptable”.

Passengers wait for information at Gatwick Airport (Jeremy Selwyn)

Asked if there was any foreign state influence, Theresa May’s spokesman said: “The police have been absolutely categorical that they don’t believe that there is any terrorist intent.”

Gatwick Airport’s chief operating officer Chris Woodroofe said the airport will be closed until at least 4pm.

Earlier he said: “I’m absolutely certain this is a deliberate act. There is a drone on my airfield as we speak.”

He said 20 police units have been scouring the airport perimeter trying to find the drone operators.

Police and airport officials have been considering drastic steps to bring down the drones, including the use of police snipers to shoot them out of the sky.

Passengers wait for information at Gatwick Airport after drone pilots sparked chaos (Jeremy Selwyn)

But Mr Woodroofe told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The police advise us that it would be dangerous to seek to shoot the drone down because of what may happen to the stray bullets. The police are looking for the operator and that is the way to disable a drone.”

Passengers were advised not to travel to the airport if their flight is cancelled.

Police storming a flight for a disruptive passenger amid chaos at Gatwick airport

Gatwick’s biggest airline easyJet said in a statement: “We advise all customers flying to and from London Gatwick today to not travel to the airport if they are on flights which have been cancelled.”

Jana Bihary, who was due to fly to Prague with her daughter Grace, six, this evening to visit her seriously ill father, said the drone operators should be jailed. The NHS worker, 39, told the Standard: “If it was a one-off incident then no, but this has been going on all night and disrupted airspace to over 12 hours, so yes.”

Tennis star Laura Robson was caught up in the chaos. The former British No 1, 24, tweeted: “Five hours after landing and we have finally disembarked our flight to Gatwick ... in Cardiff.”

Jansen Gilbert, 49, was due to fly to Gibraltar on easyJet today with his daughter Paige, five. “We were going home for Christmas but are stranded,” he said.

Via Evening Standard

My view: I hope the perpetrator behind it is caught and jailed, it's an expensive joke from someone who wants to be famous at all cost.

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