Police have today been slammed for their ‘appalling investigation’ into the Gatwick chaos after they held a married couple for nearly two days without charge before admitting ‘there may never have been a drone.’
Paul and Elaine Kirk-Gait returned to their home in Crawley, West Sussex this morning after spending more than 36 hours being questioned by detectives over the device that brought Gatwick Airport to a standstill.
As the culprit remains at large four days after the attack which grounded more than 1,000 flights and 14,000 passengers, police have been accused of failing to interview colleagues who could have vouched for the couple’s whereabouts.
Friends and family repeatedly insisted the pair were not the ‘Eco-warriors’ behind the attack and claimed officers under pressure to get results had ‘hastily’ arrested the wrong couple.
As Sussex Police this afternoon confirmed they have found a ‘damaged drone’ close to Gatwick, Detective Chief Superintendent Jason Tingley said there was ‘no available footage and they are relying on witness accounts.’
This comes despite witnesses providing MailOnline with video footage of drones hovering above the airspace last week.
Asked about speculation there was never a drone, he said: ‘Of course, that’s a possibility. We are working with human beings saying they have seen something.’
The airport has now offered a £50,000 reward to catch the suspect who operated the device.
Paul Gait, 47, and his wife Elaine, 54, arriving home on Sunday morning after spending 36 hours in police custody
Chief Superintendent Jason Tingley, left, says there ‘may never have been a drone’. Right, Mr and Mrs Gait were released from custody after more than 36 hours
Four days after the drone attack that brought Gatwick Airport to a standstill, it has emerged that:
- National Security Secretariat directors ‘stepped in’ to take command of the incident on Thursday afternoon – 17 hours after drone at the Sussex airport unleashed travel chaos
- Paul and Elaine Gait returned to their home in Crawley on Sunday morning after their arrest on Friday – more than 36 hours being questioned by detectives over the drone
- Mr Gait’s employer John Allard slammed Sussex Police for an ‘appalling’ investigation where they ‘failed to even consult him’
- Police have found a ‘damaged drone’ close to the airport on Sunday, which is being investigated
- Sussex Police then said there ‘may not have been a drone’ and there was ‘no available footage and they are relying on witness accounts’
- Gatwick Airport has offered a £50,000 to find the culprit behind the drone attack
Relief for Christmas holidaymakers as Gatwick gets back to normal
Gatwick Airport today confirmed its runway is open and it aims to run a full schedule this weekend.
A spokesman told MailOnline services are ‘stable and normal’.
Only one flight this evening has been cancelled – a domestic flight to Stansted Airport which should not affect passengers.
There are some 769 flights operating today, with a total of 131, 228 passengers passing through Gatwick.
This includes some 73,726 holidaymakers departing on outbound flights and 57,502 passengers coming through arrivals.
However passengers are being warned they should expect some delays as the airport continues to ‘recover our operations’ following three days of disruption.
Holidaymakers are advised to check with their airline before travelling to the airport.
Click here for live travel information
Detectives hunting the Gatwick Airport drone operator insist they are ‘not back to square one.’
Chief Superintendent Jason Tingley said one of the ‘working theories’ was that the damaged drone found close to the airport in Horley was responsible for causing the disruption.
He said: ‘Until we’ve got more clarity around what they’ve said, the detail – the time, place, direction of travel, all those types of things – and that’s a big task.
‘Always look at it with an open mind, but actually it’s very basic common sense that a damaged drone, which may have not been there at a particular point in time has now been seen by an occupier, a member of the public, and then they’ve told us, ‘we’ve found this’.
‘Then we go and forensically recover it and do everything we can at that location to try and get a bit more information.’
But a source said last night the drone could be ‘a red herring’ and may have been there for some time.
It emerged yesterday that since drone tracking equipment arrived at Gatwick on Thursday, no unauthorised drone activity has actually been registered.
Det Ch Supt Tingley said the arrests made on Friday night were as a result of a tip-off from a member of the public.
‘I’m completely satisfied the arrests were lawful, bearing in mind the burden of proof and likely suspicion at the time of arrest,’ he said.
‘Obviously we had to be sure prior to release, in terms of that investigation, they were no longer suspects. I won’t apologise, but what I will say is we really do appreciate their co-operation and we have put a lot of effort and resources into supporting them when they were released from questioning.’
Questions have also now been raised as to why ministers’ refused to sanction the deployment of a crack team of military electronic warfare specialists who could have brought the crisis to a halt just hours after it started.
Gemma Allard, who had an eight-year relationship with Mr Gait and is the mother of his 15-year-old son, said the Gaits may be holding a press conference tomorrow.
Gemma, 40, and her father John run Allard Double Glazing in Crowborough, where Paul works. John Allard slammed Sussex Police for an ‘appalling’ investigation where they ‘ailed to even consult him.’
Paul Gait, 47, and his wife Elaine Kirk, 54, both from Crawley, were arrested in the town shortly after 10pm on Friday. They were released without charge on Sunday morning
He said he could account for Mr Gait’s movements over the last week and could have provided police with a clear alibi ‘if they had only asked.’
The 68-year-old claims he was forced to contact police himself but was unable to get through to anybody as he tried to clear Mr Gait’s name. He said ‘no police officers bothered to call him back.’
Mr Allard said that on Wednesday and most of Thursday, Mr Gait had been installing guttering for a client and on Friday the ex-soldier had been driving around Mr Allard’s injured daughters.
Speaking today, he said: ‘Obviously the police could have handled it better just by asking the who, when and where. The police have handled this absolutely appallingly, they really have.
‘All it would have taken was for them to call me and contact me as his employer and I could have confirmed [his movements].
‘I discovered on Friday evening that he had been arrested. I got onto the police Saturday evening, but I couldn’t get through to anybody, there was just somebody who said I’ll take notes and pass that message on.
‘But they never did get back to me, there was no return contact.’
Neighbours of the couple have said they would ‘be surprised’ if they had anything to do with the incident
Mr Gait, a model aircraft enthusiast, once posted this picture of a toy helicopter on Facebook
Mr Allard added: ‘I know Paul well, he’s worked for me for 17 years and this is going to hit him like a 10-tonne truck. Paul Gait is as harmless as a bloody new born fly. He really is, he’s the most inoffensive bloke you’ll ever meet.
‘Although there was a complete lack of evidence, the police ripped his house apart. He refers to me as a second father and he always comes to me if there are any problems in his life. I know this will mentally destroy him.
‘Paul Gait doesn’t own a drone. The drone he had he sold back in mid-summer. It was only a silly little one – anyone could have gone and bought in Hamleys.
‘Sussex Police have really dropped the ball on this. I have always supported the police and I like to think I always would but in this case I think they have really got it wrong.
‘Let’s also not overlook the fact I am wondering what long-term damage this would have on my business.’
Friends accused detectives of ‘screwing up’ the inquiry by rushing to detain the couple despite a ‘complete lack of evidence’.
Paul Gait, a double-glazing fitter, and his wife Elaine, from Crawley in West Sussex, today returned to their family home
They expressed shock over the arrests, describing Miss Kirk as ‘not great with technology’ and window fitter Mr Gait as ‘harmless as a bloody newborn fly’.
A neighbour, who did not want to be named, said: ‘It’s obvious the police have screwed this up big time. We think they arrested him because he’d been in trouble over his helicopters about two years ago.
‘His neighbour called police because he was flying it over the cul-de-sac. The theory is they swooped on them because of his history flying the drone.
‘But obviously the person who has really done it has done a runner in the time they’ve been interviewing Paul and Elaine.’
She added: ‘Clearly they were under lots of pressure to arrest someone, and this couple happened to live near Gatwick and owned a drone.’
Det Ch Supt Tingley said police were running a three-pronged investigation including working through information relating to ‘persons of interest’, investigating more than 67 drone sightings and forensically examining the damaged drone.
But he explained the examination could be hampered by the wet weather on Friday and Saturday, which could have washed away evidence.
He added: ‘Both people have fully co-operated with our enquiries and I am satisfied that they are no longer suspects in the drone incidents at Gatwick.
‘It is important to remember that when people are arrested in an effort to make further enquiries it does not mean that they are guilty of an offence and Sussex Police would not seek to make their identity public.
‘Our inquiry continues at a pace to locate those responsible for the drone incursions, and we continue to actively follow lines of investigation.
‘We ask for the public’s continued support by reporting anything suspicious, contacting us with any information in relation to the drone incidents at Gatwick.’
It comes as the airport offered a £50,000 reward through Crimestoppers for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the chaos.
This is in addition to the £10,000 currently offered by Lord Ashcroft, chairman of the charity.
Search for evidence: Police in Crawley this morning where the couple were arrested on Friday night in the wake of the Gatwick Airport chaos which left hundreds of thousands of holidaymakers stranded just days before Christmas
Gemma Allard (pictured left and at the Gait’s homr today, right) had an eight-year relationship with Mr Gait and is the mother of his 15-year-old son. Gemma, 40, and her father run Allard Double Glazing in Crowborough, where Paul works. She maintained his innocence
He could not rule out the risk the culprits would strike again at Gatwick or another airport. But Mr Tingley said he hopes the reward money will persuade someone to come forward with the vital clue.
How the Gatwick fiasco unfolded
All flights at Gatwick are halted just after 9pm after two drones are spotted.
The runway is reopened in the early hours before being shut again after more drone reports. Police call it ‘a deliberate act to disrupt the airport’ and request military help. Gatwick says 246 departures and 202 arrivals have been hit.
Detective Chief Superintendent Jason Tingley, of Sussex Police, says there have been more than 50 sightings of the device in the previous 24 hours. He reveals shooting down the drone is a ‘tactical option’.
Planes begin to use the runway again but are suspended in the evening for an hour after another drone sighting. At 10pm a man and a woman are arrested in connection with the ‘criminal use of drones’.
Gatwick says it aims to ‘run a full schedule’. A spokesman said around 1,000 aircraft have been cancelled or diverted, affecting approximately 140,000 passengers, since Wednesday night. The arrested couple are named as model plane enthusiast Paul Gait and his wife Elaine Kirk.
The couple are released without charge and Gatwick Airport offers a £50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the drone chaos. Police also reveal they have found a damaged drone close to the airport perimeter on Saturday.
‘Someone, somewhere knows either the perpetrator or perpetrators responsible for this, or has information relating to these incidents. But secondly, our tactical response, should there be any more drone sightings, is still in place,’ he added.
Neighbours had described how model aircraft enthusiast Mr Gait was regularly seen flying remote controlled cars and planes near the detached property he lives in, which is just one mile from the runway.
Officers from Sussex Police today remain outside the couple’s detached house in a quiet cul de sac less than a mile from Gatwick’s runway.
As the couple were brought home in a police van escorted by two police cars, they declined to comment on allegations that Mr Gait had been responsible for closing down Gatwick Airport.
Mr Gait’s parents, meanwhile, insisted their son was a ‘nice boy’ who would ‘simply not have had the time’ to carry out the attack.
Speaking from their Kent home, Paul’s parents Margaret and Francis, who are in their 70s, emphatically defended their son, claiming: ‘There is no way he would ever put anyone’s life in danger.’
The 47-year-old’s mother Margaret said her son was a ‘nice person’ and the drone attack was just ‘not the sort of thing he would do.’
His father Francis added: ‘He was brave and served his country, and always did as he was asked.
‘And it has been said eco-warriors might be behind it – but he’s no eco-warrior,’ he added.
‘He likes to fish and he likes his meat. Everyone is phoning me up and saying, ‘It can’t be him. That’s not Paul.’
‘He has never been in trouble. He had a big model helicopter but he sold that a couple of years ago. He has had small drones.
‘Somebody has pointed the finger at him and said, ‘He likes to fly drones’. But Paul wouldn’t do something like this.’
Mr Gait works for a double-glazing company, Allard Windows, in Crowborough, East Sussex
The couple (left and right) live just five miles away from the airport. Paul Gait is a window fitter and his boss has said he was working at the time of the incident
At their Kent home last night, Mr Gait’s parents, who are in their 70s, watched in sheer disbelief the 6pm TV news, which included film of their son’s home being searched.
Paul Gait, 47, and his wife Elaine Kirk, 54, both from Crawley, were arrested in the town shortly after 10pm on Friday. They were released without charge on Sunday
Close to tears, his father slowly shook his head. Beside him his wife, wide-eyed, pressed her hand over her mouth. She said: ‘We’re in total shock. We can’t believe it.’
‘He was brave and served his country, and always did as he was asked,’ his father said. ‘There is no way he would ever put anyone’s life in danger.’
Neighbour Bob Simpkin, 74, saw Mr Gait being carted away in a van by police late on Friday night.
‘Suddenly I heard screaming and shouting. I went out to see what was going on, and I saw a man being taken away,’ he said.
‘I thought it was rowdy behaviour from youngsters. Not in a million years could I have imagined what it was really about.’
Paul’s father told us that his son joined the Army straight from school.
A gunner in the Royal Artillery, he did two tours of Northern Ireland and a stint in Bosnia during the war in the early 1990s.
After leaving the Army, Mr Gait worked as a security guard for the council in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, where he monitored the town’s CCTV cameras. If he witnessed suspicious or any anti-social behaviour, his job was to alert Kent Police.
An officer checks the boot of a car as police carried out their investigation
Mr Gait now works for a double-glazing company, Allard Windows, in Crowborough, East Sussex.
His Facebook profile depicts him as an easy-going, hands-on dad who likes tinkering with toy planes.
His father insisted that his son would simply not have had time to carry out the Gatwick attacks because he was at work all week.
Others painted a similar portrait. Mr Gait’s former partner Gemma Allard said: ‘When it [the drone attack] started, Paul was sitting in my front room in Crowborough having a cup of tea, and the rest of the day he was working at my clients’ houses. So he was not even near Gatwick – he was 17 miles away.
‘I know what they [the police] are doing – they are trying to do something to please the public, but they have got the wrong man, and they need to let him out and catch the people behind this.
‘He is not a drone enthusiast, he is a model aircraft enthusiast. He had a drone, but he has not got a drone at present, and he was that far away. The police don’t want to hear it because then they’ll have hard evidence [that he didn’t do it] and they don’t want to release him. They want to keep the public happy.’
She suspects that someone ‘with a bone to pick with him’ maliciously tipped off police about him having a drone.
A model plane enthusiast, Paul Gait offered this radio-controlled Second World War fighter for sale on Facebook. He sold the model of an American P-51C Mustang, above, for £200 in July 2017 – telling buyers to ‘collect from Gatwick’
What is the law on drones? Who can buy them and how flying too close to an airport can land you five years in prison
The major flight disruption at London Gatwick today comes just five months after new laws banned drones from flying too close to airports.
Legislation implemented in July means people in Britain are now banned from flying the devices above 400ft and within 1km (0.6 miles) of airport boundaries.
Drone users who flout the height and airport boundary restrictions could face an unlimited fine, up to five years in prison, or both.
Laws introduced to the Commons in May mean people flying drones which weigh 250g or more will have to register with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).
Drone pilots will be required to take an online safety test under the new legislation, with the requirements set to come into force in November next year.
Research has found a drone weighing 400g (14oz) could smash a helicopter windscreen, and one at 2kg (4lbs) could critically damage an airliner’s windscreen.
In July, the DfT said it was considering introducing an age restriction, banning children from owning drones weighing at least 250g.
It also said it was considering giving police the power to issue on-the-spot fines of up to £300 for misuse and the ability to seize drones being used irresponsibly.
There have already been 117 near misses between manned aircraft and drones up until November this year, compared to 93 for the whole of 2017.
She added: ‘I was in a relationship with Paul for eight years and I’ve known him since 2000, Paul wouldn’t do this, not a chance, he was sitting in our office in Crowborough.
‘I’ve gone to the police, the custody suite said they might get back to me, my belief is that they don’t want to get back to me as they know he wasn’t there.
‘Paul hasn’t even got a drone at the minute, I think somebody with a bone to pick with him has gone to the police.
‘They’ve said to them ‘this guy lives near Gatwick Airport and he has had a drone’ – I wouldn’t name who I think that’s said it, but I think that’s one potential.
‘Numerous people at work would have seen him as well as clients at their houses – he was with two other of our employees and the last time I saw him was at three o’clock on Friday in Crowborough.
‘To the people that did this at Gatwick, they need locking up, we need some sort of regulation, it’s ridiculous how in this day and age we can’t do anything to stop them.’
Gemma and another employee from Allard Double Glazing were quizzed by detectives at Crawley police station last night.
She said: ‘Two employees are able to vouch for him and they have done. I was the main witness because I was with him in the morning, he was on site with two people.
‘An apprentice who worked with Paul has been interviewed and corroborated by statement. He doesn’t have drones, he is the father of my child, I hear all about his helicopters.
‘Paul sold his drone so he could buy a helicopter – he has never had a four foot drone. Besides that old drone he had was no more than a foot long, it just made a little buzzing sound – he got rid of that months ago.’
Others defended Mr Gait’s wife Elaine, whom he married in 2013. She has worked in sales for Unilever for the past 20 years. Her ex-husband Ian Kirk said: ‘There is no way that Elaine could do this. She hates drones and she cannot even operate them.’
A former Unilever colleague added: ‘She’s a sweet, quiet lady who has a son who she adores. I can’t see her being involved.’
Paul Gait (right) and his wife Elaine (left) pictured out with a friend for drinks in a pub
Counter drone equipment was deployed on a rooftop at Gatwick airport, as the airport and airlines work to clear the backlog caused by the incident
Passengers queue up for news regarding their easyJet flights on Saturday morning (pictured). Around 1,000 aircraft have been cancelled or diverted, affecting approximately 140,000 passengers since Wednesday night, a Gatwick spokesman said
The suspects: Who could have carried out the drone attack?
Environmental activist group: Groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Plane Stupid have been carrying out increasingly high-profile stunts in recent months, but no one has claimed responsibility over yesterday’s action.
Speaking to MailOnline, an Extinction Rebellion spokesman said the group had nothing to do with the drone. She added that the police had not been in contact with them about the incident at Gatwick.
‘Lone wolf’: The incident may be the work of an anarchistic loner who wanted to make an impact and cause carnage.
Foreign power: Some experts say the sophistication of the equipment used suggests a hostile foreign government may be involved.
Anti-noise campaigners: It is possible a local resident with a grudge against aircraft noise carried out the drone flights in retaliation at the airport.
Immigration campaigners: In the wake of convictions of the ‘Stansted 15’ earlier this month, a case involving activists who stopped a deportation flight, it is possible a copycat campaigner tried to stop a planned deportation.
Extortionist: Some have suggested an extortionist could be using the financial damage caused by the drone flight to extort money out of one of the many businesses hurt.
Bob Simpkin, 74, said: ‘Paul is what you could describe as an average person, a hard working builder. I was shocked to hear what happened, I do believe the police have got the wrong people – this is totally out of character.
‘Last night I heard a lot of screaming and shouting, when I looked outside I saw a woman being led to a police van by a female copper.
‘The van was parked outside their house and I saw a woman led into the van. Paul and Elaine have been together for about five years – I sometimes see a young lad of about ten there too.
‘Elaine doesn’t seem the person to get involved in any trouble – she works a lot too from what I can tell. Were they the couple who flew the drone at the airport? I don’t think so.
‘Paul is just not stupid enough to do that – I’ve got the feeling the police are wrong. He is more into his model helicopters, I’ve seen him use them, but only around his property.’
Another neighbour, who wished not to be named, said: ‘They don’t seem the type to do this, they’re down to earth. He’s a builder and she works somewhere six days a week.
‘Paul likes his gadgets, he only ever used his drone in the street – you could hear all that buzzing sound. I haven’t seen them use it recently but its winter so it’s dark.
‘He used to do it in the street, everyone was quite impressed, especially the kids. They keep themselves to themselves really.’
Another neighbour said: ‘Paul is a hard working family man, it is unbelievable. These are just two lovely people that met dog walking and worked six days a week.’
A worker can been seen on the roof top at Gatwick airport, after fitting counter drone equipment to the roof
Police were also looking into theories as to whether eco-warriors or a group of activists protesting deportations of migrants could be behind the drone mayhem.
Crawley, a town with a population of just over 100,000, is just five miles away from Gatwick and under the airport’s flightpath.
Activists in the town have previously declared a ‘state of emergency’ in the countryside to counter a proposed second runway.
Around 1,000 aircraft have been cancelled or diverted amid this week’s mayhem, plunging 140,000 passengers into chaos since Wednesday night.
Last night motorist Paul Motts, 52, revealed he saw a man in his 30s wearing hi-vis clothing and crouching over a drone in a country lane near the West Sussex airport on Thursday.
Mr Motts said the suspicious man had been trying to ‘get away as fast as he could’ as Sussex Police combed the countryside to find the drone pilot.
He told The Sun: ‘I was delivering a parcel and drove past a suspicious man in fluorescent cycling gear crouching over a large drone which was all lit up.
‘It looked like he was packing the drones away. Two minutes later we turned around and came across him cycling away.
‘I expect he wanted to disassemble the drone as quickly as possible and get away as fast as he could.’
Police at British airports will be armed with drone-catching bazookas which can trap rogue miniature aircraft in nets as fears grow of Gatwick copycats
By Amie Gordon for MailOnline
Police at Britain’s biggest airports are set to be armed with drone-killing bazookas in the wake of the Gatwick attack which grounded tens of thousands of passengers.
Metropolitan Police at Heathrow Airport are testing anti-drone weapons which fire a mortar-like projectile containing a net to snare a flying drone within a range of 130 yards.
After the crisis that brought misery to more than 140,000 travellers last week, senior government figures have now agreed to enlist the use of military warfare technologies in a bid to stop copycat attacks.
A team of officers at Heathrow have already been armed with the SkyWall 100 system (file photo)
THE COUNTER-DRONE BAZOOKA
The SkyWall 100 counter-measure system designed for civil drone threat.
It is lightweight and portable, so it can be used by a single operator on foot.
It uses compressed gas to power a ‘smart launcher,’ along with a programmable projectile.
After launch, a parachute floats the whole package safely down to the ground for collection.
So far, the SkyWall 100 is the first system that will be released.
Other models include the SkyWall 200, a semi-permanent device that can be carried by two people, and the SkyWall 300, a permanent installation.
According to The Sunday Times, a team of officers at Heathrow have already been armed with the SkyWall 100 system, which will put into use in a matter of weeks.
SkyWall 100 is a drone-capturing system which was developed three years ago by UK-based OpenWorks Engineering.
The operator mounts the bazooka-like mechanism onto a shoulder to locate the drone in question with the help of a smart scope.
While the operator closes in on the target, the scope provides constant feedback for a more precise aim.
The computer tracks the flight path of the drone, and calculates the necessary projectile trajectory to intercept it.
Then, the projectile is launched, opening up into a net in the air to capture the drone.
A parachute then floats the whole package, including the projectiles and the drone, safely down to the ground for collection.
This allows for capture of the drone without destroying it, so officials can perform forensic investigations.
If the operator’s aim is off, and they happen to miss the drone, the parachute will still deploy and return to the ground so the parts can be reused.
The counter-drone system can even be equipped with audible and visual alarms.
The creators say this system is cost effective, as it has a low initial cost and the projectiles can be refurbished and reused.
SkyWall 100 deploys a parachute after ensnaring the drone, so it can be recovered intact on the ground for intelligence gathering
The operator mounts the bazooka-like mechanism onto a shoulder to locate the drone in question with the help of a smart scope (pictured). Then, the projectile is launched, opening up into a net in the air to capture the drone
Crack RAF unit could have downed drone causing chaos for tens of thousands at Gatwick…but ministers refused to let them help
By Mark Nichol for the Mail on Sunday
A crack team of military electronic warfare specialists were prevented from bringing the Gatwick drone crisis to a halt just hours after it started because Ministers refused to sanction their deployment.
Ten troops from the Royal Air Force 2 Field Communications Squadron and four from the Army’s 14 Signal Regiment were put on standby following the first sighting at 9pm on Wednesday.
The highly skilled units were poised to be flown into Gatwick in Chinook helicopters and were ready to use sophisticated anti-drone weaponry which would have intercepted and crippled the device. It could even have tracked down the culprits.
Military electronic warfare specialists were prevented from bringing the Gatwick drone crisis to a halt just hours after it started by Ministers (pictured, military equipment guarded by an airman on the airport’s roof on Saturday)
But The Mail on Sunday has been told by high-level Whitehall sources that officials at the Department for Transport and the Home Office stopped the troops taking action for up 18 hours – as the situation descended into a crisis that brought misery to more than 140,000 travellers.
Last night a source said: ‘Keeping the military at bay when they had the expertise and the kit ready to go on Wednesday night was madness.
‘I think this situation could have been brought under control 24 hours earlier had the right decisions been taken.
‘There was a reluctance in the Department for Transport, which is responsible for Gatwick, and to some extent in the Home Office, to use the Armed Forces and as a result the airport was paralysed for longer.
‘The incident has to be a huge wake-up call for Government departments and Ministers who sat on their hands in the early stages of the crisis and made it much worse than it needed to be.
‘Next time it could be a terrorist attack on an airport using drones – and hundreds of lives could be at stake.’
High-level Whitehall sources said officials at the Department for Transport and the Home Office stopped the troops taking action for up 18 hours
The decision not to deploy the troops is all the more shocking because strict laws prevent police and other law enforcement agencies from using jamming equipment which would have neutralised the drone.
But the Armed Forces are exempt from these regulations and can use this highly effective kit in the event of a national emergency.
As the troops waited at their UK bases to fly to Gatwick Airport, drones were seen repeatedly during Thursday, disrupting 246 departures and 202 arrivals, and affecting 72,500 passengers.
Finally a formal request for military assistance was made by Sussex Police at 3.56pm on Thursday, 19 hours after the first sighting of drones at Gatwick.
The support of the Armed Forces to civil authorities in the UK is officially known as Military Aid to the Civil Authorities (MACA) and is strictly regulated.
The role is part of the National Security Strategy and involves troops being brought in to provide niche capabilities, such as defusing bombs or assisting police in anti-terror operations.
An array of anti-drone technology helped to reopen Gatwick Airport after almost 36 hours of chaos
Under MACA guidelines, a Government department must make a formal request for help when there is a clear reason for troops to be involved. This is usually agreed at ministerial level. Military assistance is co-ordinated by the Ministry of Defence’s Operations Directorate in London which, it is understood, became involved in the Gatwick crisis on Wednesday night.
This newspaper has also been told that the military teams are expected to remain at Gatwick for the next fortnight to protect the airport from further drone incursions – a decision which means the troops will spend Christmas away from their families.
Last night, the Department for Transport refused to say what, if any, additional security measures would be introduced at other UK airports to combat the threat of drones, some of which are large enough to wreck a plane’s engine if they collided, potentially leading to the deaths of hundreds of passengers.
A Transport Department spokesman said: ‘I cannot comment on operational matters.’
Crawley is just over five miles away from Gatwick, the UK’s busiest airport which sees hundreds of flights leave to and from the transport hub every day
Passengers sit and wait for more information regarding their flights this morning, as many flights still have delays on Saturday
Timeline: How dangerous drone pilot managed to shut down Gatwick
Police are hunting for the expert drone pilot who has grounded hundreds of planes coming in and out of Gatwick by flying a drone at least 50 times
Here is how the chaos has unfolded:
9pm, December 19: Drone is first spotted by airport staff hovering near the runway causing flights to be grounded or diverted.
9.15pm: It appears again leading Gatwick bosses to believe it is a deliberate act.
9.30pm – midnight: The drone is seen at least five more times in that period
3.01am, December 20: Airport re-opens its runway after the all clear is given
3.45am: Drone is seen again and flights are again grounded
7am: Small unmanned aircraft appears again
9am: Another sighting of the drone as police start hunting perimeter of the airport
Midday: Police are unable find the drone pilot despite it appearing again at lunchtime with Gatwick saying all flights are grounded until at least 4pm
2pm: Airport admits it has ‘no idea’ when it will re-open as police struggle to find the pilot
3pm: The drone is spotted again as it buzzes across Gatwick’s runway. It was just minutes after airport bosses announced they had hoped to re-open at 4pm.
4pm: Drone spotted flying over the runway yet again.
5pm: Ministry of Defence confirms that it is using specialist equipment to seek out the drone
8pm: Gatwick tells passengers not to come to the airport on Friday as drone buzzes across terminals
8.30pm-9.30pm: Another sighting of the drone on Thursday evening
10pm: The last known sighting of the drone hours after Army is deployed
3am, Friday December 21: Airport bosses deem the airspace is clear
6am: Gatwick re-opens the runway
10.30am: Flights are taking off and landing as normal
5.10pm: The runway is closed again after another suspected sighting
10pm: Two suspects are arrested, Sussex Police announce
December 23: Sussex Police confirm two suspects arrested in conjunction with the widespread disruption of flights at Gatwick Airport through the illegal use of drones have been released without charge
In the departures line at Gatwick on Saturday was the Shorrock family, from Oxford, who were flying to Innsbruck in the Austrian Alps for a skiing trip.
Vivienne Shorrock was ‘relieved’ to have avoided the drone disruption as she was worried the family’s non-refundable holiday would go to waste.
‘But then we thought well it’s a middle class problem isn’t it. Oh no, we can’t go on a skiing holiday,’ she said.
‘In perspective some people have suffered real losses by not getting where they want to go to be with family.’
David Shorrock joked the drone drama was a ‘nice distraction from Brexit’ before offering a novel solution to the problem.
‘They should’ve got some farmers here. They would’ve soon sorted it out,’ he said.
‘You get 100 young farmers here with a flagon of cider. Free cider for anyone who shoots the drone.’
Planes were grounded again at 5pm on Friday when a drone was sighted above the airfield before air traffic resumed with severe delays.
One flight from Morocco appeared to be just moments away from landing when it was forced to divert only 1,000 feet above the ground last night while other passengers were sitting ready for take-off when pilots told them of another sighting.
Just over an hour later Gatwick said planes had returned to the air, saying the ‘military measures in place at the airport’ would ensure the safety of passengers.
The Army had earlier used jamming devices in the hope of knocking the drone out of the sky as police scoured the Sussex countryside in a bit to find the culprit.
Police said they were closing in on the pilots who allegedly used ‘multiple’ drones to shut down Gatwick’s runway and are even claimed to have taunted officers by zooming over their heads while flashing lights at them.
Passengers were left with Christmas plans ruined, with some forced to abandon holidays abroad while others struggled to return to the UK in time for December 25.
One had to fork out thousands of dollars for a one-way ticket from New York to get back to the UK from New York after her flight could not reach Gatwick on Friday morning.
Scarlette Tidy was booked on a Norwegian Air flight to Gatwick but by the time she was told the trip was cancelled, all the airline’s flights to London were sold out until after Christmas.
With passengers waiting two hours for a ‘live chat’ on Norwegian’s website she was forced to spend over $3,000 – several times what she had originally paid – to reach her family in time for Christmas.
She said the experience had been a ‘total disaster’ but that she was now en route back to London.
Another passenger, Emma Jewell, told MailOnline she and her boyfriend were stranded in the Dominican Republic after her flight to Gatwick had been cancelled.
She said the airline had rebooked them on a flight to Heathrow via Philadelphia, but her boyfriend’s ESTA for the United States did not come through in time and they could not board the flight.
The couple then boarded a flight to New York only to find there was a problem with the air conditioning, leaving them waiting on the tarmac and certain to miss their connection to the UK.