There were drone-near misses long before the Christmas 2018 chaos
Reports reveal history of incidents affecting commercial Gatwick flights
Drones reportedly posed a threat to the safety of flights in and out of Gatwick Airport years before the Christmas chaos which saw hundreds of planes grounded.
Just three years before the December disruption, a drone flown deliberately over the airport’s runway came dangerously close to hitting a landing commercial airliner.
The incident was among 15 flights to and from Gatwick since 2015 which encountered a near-miss with a drone, according to official reports.
The figure was uncovered as part of an investigation by this newspaper and JPIMedia titles nationwide, which found the South East had the secondhighest number of nearmisses between drones and aircraft since 2010.
Analysis of UK Airprox Board (UKAB) reports found 83 reported drone incidents across the region – nine of which were in Sussex – between January, 2010, and October, 2018.
A drone strike would pose a significant danger to aircraft, officials have warned.
Ministry of Defence guidance stated: “Whilst there is work ongoing within the aviation industry to fully understand the implications of a drone hitting an aircraft, it doesn’t take much imagination to understand the likely consequences of 3kg of metal and plastic, including the lithiumpolymer battery, hitting a helicopter windshield or, perhaps worse, the tail rotor at 100mph.”
The region most affected by near-misses was Greater London, which experienced 103 of the 312 reported UK incidents over the eight-year period, according to UKAB reports. The South East was close behind with 83 – more than double that of any other area.
A total of 15 UKAB reports documented drone incidents which affected commercial planes to and from Gatwick, according to the research.
Of these, seven were flying over East or West Sussex at the time.
Among them was an incident on November 28, 2015, which left UKAB members ‘incredulous’ at the illegal and dangerous actions of a drone pilot who police were unable to trace.
The captain of an Airbus A321 had spotted what he assumed was a bird hovering about 100ft above the Gatwick runway, the UKAB stated.
It was thought the drone operator had been trying to capture footage of plane landings when it came within 80ft of hitting the plane, the report added.
It said: “The board quickly agreed that the drone was being operated in flagrant disregard of the regulations and without thought as to the serious consequences should an approaching aircraft either land slightly long or have to go-around at a late stage.
“Members expressed their deep disappointment at the actions of the individual responsible for this drone’s operation, no doubt undertaken in order to secure head-on video footage of landing passenger airliners; they were incredulous at the behaviour that had been demonstrated in this incident.”
On March 20, 2016, a passenger plane flying in the vicinity of Shoreham came within feet of a drone being flown more than nine times higher than safety rules permitted.
The near-miss happened as the Bombardier DHC8 was making its descent under the supervision of Gatwick Airport’s air traffic control team. As the plane was flying at more than 9,000ft the pilot saw a drone pass down its right side, under the wing.
The drone passed 50 tp 100ft below the aircraft.
The UKAB said the incident meant ‘safety had been much reduced’ on the flight and rated it a Category B near-miss, or ‘major incident’.
At the time, some drones fitted with a first-person view (FPV) camera live-feed could be flown between 400ft and 1,000ft under certain conditions – a rule which has since changed.
The board said even so, the drone should not have been flown above 1,000ft and ruled that it had ‘been operated in contravention of applicable regulations’. The drone operator could not be traced.
Drone disruptions made national news in July, 2017, when the BBC reported a sighting leading to closure of the runway and the diversion of five flights.
A UKAB report which matched the date said a near-miss a few nautical miles from the airport represented a ‘definite risk’ of collision.
Just a week later, a ‘very large’ drone which passed over the wing of an approaching Airbus had put the lives of 130 passengers at risk, the captain told the UKAB.
Jonathan Nicholson, of the Civil Aviation Authority, said: “Air travel is the safest mode of transport and remains so and everything we do is to make sure that happens, but we also want to remove any kind of conflict in the air.
“We want the maximum levels of safety, so that is why it is absolutely imperative that drone users follow the (Drone) Code and drone rules.”
Aside from incidents affecting commercial Gatwick flights, the UKAB documented two further near-misses in Sussex. They included a drone operator reporting close shaves with two light aircraft while using his machine to take panoramic pictures near Hastings. He had questioned the safety measures built into his drone when he was unable to safely lower it, the UKAB reported.
Although it transpired it was possible to abort the picture-taking mode, board members ‘wondered whether this information should be given more prominence in the manual’.
Gatwick declined to comment on the findings of the investigation.
Laws around the use of drones are becoming increasingly tight as the devices gain in popularity.
Anyone flying a small drone must always have direct visual contact with it. Breaking this law could lead to a fine of £2,500. On July 30, 2018, it also became against the law to fly a drone above 400ft (120m) or within 1km of an airport or airfield boundary.
Anyone caught doing so could a face a £2,500 fine. From November 30, 2019, all owners of drones weighing 250g or more will also have to register with the Civil Aviation Authority and drone pilots will have to take an online safety test.
General aviation rules also apply to drone pilots.
Flying drones in a manner which is likely to endanger an aircraft could result in a five-year prison sentence, as could causing an aircraft to endanger people or property.
Intentionally using a drone to commit an act of violence at an international airport could mean life imprisonment.
Earlier this month, the Government announced it would be bringing forward a draft Drones Bill which could give the police powers to issue on-thespot fines for minor drone offences.
The Government also plans to widen the restrictions around airports to about 5km.
The actions of these drone users was not only irresponsible, but illegal
BARONESS SUGG Aviation Minister on Gatwick’s drone chaos
How reported near-misses between drones and aircraft have increased