Travelers in the UK encountered one of the worst holiday occurrences imaginable last week: a completely closed airport just days before Christmas. All flights in and out of Gatwick Airport in southeast England were halted on December 20 and again on December 22 due to what was initially described as “mysterious drones” flying dangerously nearby.
Multiple unidentified small aircraft were seen in the skies above the airport, and they seemed to reappear each time the airport attempted to open. While dangerous drone activity near airports is nothing new, the investigation following these incidents has only led to more questions which make me suspect something stranger may be in the skies over England.
The UK Ministry of Defence immediately began searching for the aircraft after the airport closures, bringing in specialized equipment to help defend the airport and identify what the drones may be. Soon after, Sussex Police issued a statement claiming the drones witnesses described seemed to be “of an industrial specification.” In other words, these aren’t some kid accidentally losing control of a $30 quadcopter - these drones appeared to be large, sophisticated aircraft.
On December 23, Sussex Police arrested a couple they believed were related to the drone sightings, but those individuals were shortly after released and exonerated, leaving no other suspects to be found. Perhaps most curiously of all, the lead investigator on the case then publicly questioned whether there has been any drone incursions into the airport’s airspace at all. If they weren’t drones, then what exactly was seen in the skies near Gatwick Airport?
While it might be easy to write this off as a case of amateur drone operators flying unintentionally near an airport - and it very well may be - there have been several other curious cases of unidentified flying objects in the skies over the UK lately. The Royal Air Force scrambled fighters just a few weeks ago to intercept an unidentified aircraft above eastern England, and multiple pilots reported strange objects in the skies over Ireland just a few months back. Could they be related to this airport closure?
Whether they are or not, this incident highlights the growing security threat drones pose. Gatwick Airport’s chief executive Chris Woodroofe called the incident an “unprecedented issue,” adding that “this isn’t a Gatwick Airport issue. It’s not even a UK issue. It’s an international issue.” Anti-drone systems have become a chief priority for both civilian and military airports, and even government installations and buildings aren’t safe from the inexpensive, tiny aircraft. How can we keep the skies safe from these minuscule nuisances?
More importantly, what exactly happened in England this week? With no answers to go on, it makes me think something fishier than just a few wayward quadcopters was responsible for this airport closure.