Drones posed a threat to the safety of flights in and out of Gatwick 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, it can be revealed today.
The figure was uncovered as part of an investigation by this newspaper and JPIMedia titles nationwide, which found the South East had the second-highest number of near-misses between drones and aircraft since 2010.
Analysis of official reports found 83 documented 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 lithium-polymer battery, hitting a helicopter windshield or, perhaps worse, the tail rotor at 100mph.”
Near-misses in our area
The JPIMedia investigation examined reports published by the UK Airprox Board (UKAB).
The region most affected by near-misses was Greater London, which experienced 103 of the 312 reported UK incidents over the eight-year period.
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.
‘No time for evasive action’
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 DHC-8 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.
There was not enough time to take evasive action and the drone passed 50-100ft 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’.
Disruption and diversions
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.”
Away from Gatwick
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’.
Scores of sightings in Christmas chaos
Sussex Police said 92 ‘credible’ drone sightings brought 36 hours of chaos to Gatwick Airport in the run-up to Christmas, with 1,000 flights affected in what police described as a ‘deliberate act’ of disruption.
Heathrow was also forced to ground flights after drone sightings in early January.
Since the shutdowns, the Government has faced criticism that the events were foreseeable and more should have been done to prevent them.
But the Department for Transport has said there are already laws against such malicious acts.
Aviation Minister Baroness Sugg, said: “The actions of these drone users were not only irresponsible, but illegal. The law could not be clearer that this is a criminal offence and anyone endangering others in this way faces imprisonment.”
Gatwick declined to comment on the findings of this newspaper’s investigation.