The Mail on Sunday


PICTURED: Drone-loving double- glazing f itter and his wife accused of bringing Gatwick to a standstill

- By Ian Gallagher CHIEF REPORTER

POLICE were last night questionin­g a former soldier and his wife over the drone chaos that sabotaged the Christmas holiday plans of more than 140,000 passengers at Gatwick.

Paul Gait, 47, and Elaine Kirk, 54, were arrested at their home five miles from the airport on Friday night on suspicion of crimes involving drones that could lead to a life sentence. Friends and neighbours expressed shock and described the couple as ‘respectabl­e’.

Others said that Mr Gait, who served in Northern Ireland and Bosnia with the Royal Artillery but who now works as a window fitter, used to play with remote-controlled cars before graduating to model aircraft and drones. ‘He launched drones outside his home every Sunday afternoon,’ said one neighbour. ‘He was a big kid, really.’ In other developmen­ts yesterday: It emerged that the three- day fiasco could have been averted in a matter of

hours – but offers of help from RAF and Army electronic­s experts were rejected;

Gatwick security chiefs knew of the threat posed by drones – but sought only to enlist the help of Neighbourh­ood Watch groups and put up signs warning operators to stay away;

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling was under intense pressure over his handling of the crisis amid claims the security services had to intervene to ‘get a grip’ of the situation.

The drone pilots could be jailed for life if convicted, but senior security sources suggested that police still lacked conclusive evidence that the couple were behind the chaos.

Mr Gait’s father, who asked not to be named, told The Mail on Sunday: ‘Everyone is phoning me up saying, “It can’t be him. That’s not Paul.” ’

And Mr Gait’s boss said he could vouch for his movements all last week, and insisted he was not the culprit.

The arrests followed a sighting of a man in high-vis clothing ‘franticall­y’ packing two drones into a rucksack four miles from Gatwick and then riding off on a bike.

Services at the airport returned to near normal yesterday, having been shut for 33 hours after the first drone sighting at 9pm on Wednesday.

Since then more than 140,000 passengers have had their flights cancelled, including all those planned for Thursday – one of the busiest days in the build-up to Christmas.

The Army and police had appeared powerless to stop the saboteurs, with the drone even mockingly flashing its lights at police officers below.

Although airports can use radar scanners and cameras to look for drones, they cannot easily use ‘jammers’ to stop them flying. Police are still exploring the theory that ecowarrior­s or activists protesting against deportatio­ns of migrants could be behind the mayhem.

Last night, forensic officers examined Mr Gait’s silver VW Astra estate outside his detached £400,000 home in a cul- de- sac in Crawley. Residents in the West Sussex town have been battling a proposed Gatwick expansion.

Sussex Police Superinten­dent James Collis said ‘Our investigat­ions are ongoing and our activities at the airport continue to build resilience to detect and mitigate further incursions from drones, by deploying a range of tactics.

‘The arrests we have made are a result of our determinat­ion to keep the public safe from harm. Every line of inquiry will remain open to us until we are confident that we have mitigated further threats to the safety of passengers.’

A Gatwick spokesman said: ‘ Passengers should expect some delays and cancellati­ons as we recover operations after three days of disruption.’

LAST week’s Gatwick drone fiasco shut Britain’s second largest airport for 33 hours, led to 1,000 flights being grounded and r ui ned t he Christmase­s of 140,000 people caught up in the chaos. It also exposed depressi ng l evels of i ncompetenc­e within our Government, security services and airports.

At every stage of the saga, the public has been shamefully let down by those paid to protect us and keep the wheels of the country turning.

As long ago as July, Gatwick had informatio­n about a threat from drones, but did pretty much nothing. And while the technology has been available to neutralise these devices for some time, none of it was in place at the airport.

Then there was the Whitehall war about who was in charge of the operation to bring Gatwick back into commission.

All the while, passengers were left stranded.

When you put it all together, the Gatwick drone saga is the perfect metaphor for what has happened to this country. We think of ourselves as a global superpower but, when decisive action is needed, it’s like we have t he parish council in charge. There seems to be little leadership or joined-up thinking. But, naturally, no shortage of posturing.

Of course, we will now be told that ‘ lessons will be learned’ from what has happened last week. But who will have any faith that this is true?

What we can be sure of is that, given the law as it stands, any penalty certainly won’t fit the crime. There is a maximum of five years in prison for endangerin­g the safety of an aircraft. That would come nowhere near an appropriat­e sentence for all the Christmas holidays that have been sabotaged, and tens of millions of pounds lost.

This drone ‘attack’ may have not caused any loss of life, but the events of the past few days should bring home that the threat from such machines is terrifying­ly real. Drones are easily weaponised with guns or poisonous gases by those with malign intent. What if that had been the case last week?

At least now no one will be able to claim surprise if, in the nottoo-distant future, we are subjected to another threat from the skies – one that could be deadly. The authoritie­s should consider themselves on notice.

It’ s not like they haven’ t already had the opportunit­y to tighten up the laws on drones. Officials had been planning legislatio­n to protect airports but Transport Secretary Chris Grayling blocked it because his department was too busy making preparatio­ns for a No Deal Brexit. The result is that we are a nuclear power – the sixth biggest economy in the world – but can’t even deal with a child’s toy.

None of this will be any comfort to those caught up in the chaos. For them, months of saving and anticipati­on have ended in nothing but frustratio­n.

Meanwhile, all too predictabl­y, airlines tried to cash in on those trying to book alternativ­e flights by hiking up prices.

These travellers and holidaymak­ers deserve better than those who let them down last week.

We hope that when they finally reach their destinatio­ns, all those who have been so grievously disrupted by t he Gatwick chaos do finally have a very happy Christmas, just as we wish the same to all our readers.

 ??  ?? SUSPECTS: Paul Gait and his wife Elaine Kirk were arrested at their home over the drone chaos
SUSPECTS: Paul Gait and his wife Elaine Kirk were arrested at their home over the drone chaos

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