Police blew £400,000 on bungled Gatwick drone investigation that led to 1,000 disrupted flights

Police spent close to half a million pounds dealing with the drone crisis at Gatwick airport before Christmas.

Three months on, Sussex Police have announced no further progress or arrests in the case, since the arrest of a Crawley couple whom they held for 36 hours before releasing with apologies.

The force’s response to reports of drone activity on December 19 at the country’s second-busiest airport led to the cancellation of about 1,000 flights and disrupted 140,000 people’s Christmas travel plans.

At one point a senior officer claimed there might never have been any drone – a statement Chief Constable Giles York later walked back, saying it may have ‘amplified the chaos’ surrounding the incident.

The drone was first spotted over Gatwick on December 19 and the airport was locked down for 36 hours causing delays to 140,000 passengers (stock image)

The drone was first spotted over Gatwick on December 19 and the airport was locked down for 36 hours causing delays to 140,000 passengers (stock image)

The drone was first spotted over Gatwick on December 19 and the airport was locked down for 36 hours causing delays to 140,000 passengers (stock image)

Flights eventually resumed on December 21 after thousands of passengers spent more than a day waiting with - and sleeping on - their luggage

Flights eventually resumed on December 21 after thousands of passengers spent more than a day waiting with - and sleeping on - their luggage

Flights eventually resumed on December 21 after thousands of passengers spent more than a day waiting with – and sleeping on – their luggage

Documents seen by the Sunday Mirror show Sussex Police spent £419,000 on their search, including £332,000 on overtime and extra bank holiday pay.

They spent £52,000 to base 10 specialist officers on the site, reduced to four this month, and £12,000 on aid from neighbouring forces in Cambridge and Essex.

The remainder of the bill included £5,000 on transport, £4,000 on search equipment and £14,000 on officers’ food and accommodation.

A source told the paper: ‘Given the shambolic handling of the investigation, it’s ­astonishing that the public have been left with a £400,000 bill.’

The Ministry of Defence and specialist ‘drone dome’ hardware were eventually brought in to get the airport back up and running and the MoD has yet finalise its own bill for staff and equipment. 

After a series of sometimes contradictory briefings from officers, Chief Constable Giles York spoke to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme after the shambles to say: ‘I am absolutely certain a drone was flying throughout the period the airport was closed.’

He said the officer who suggested otherwise ‘was trying to describe an investigative approach, that asks: “How can we prove the presence of the drone in the first place?” ‘

He was asked whether that uncertainty ‘amplified the chaos’ surrounding the incident, replying: ‘Certainly that was amplified at the time, but we have been able to corroborate 115 reports [since then], 92 of them are from credible people.’

Last month the Times quoted a Whitehall source saying police now believe the chaos might have been orchestrated by a disgruntle former Gatwick employee.

Police have now collected 130 witness accounts, The Times said, and made more than 1,000 door-to-door inquiries in the investigation.

The source said: ‘[The drone pilot] knew the blind spots for it, where it could not be “hit”. 

‘It was clearly someone with really good knowledge of Gatwick, someone who had worked there. Hypothetically it could have been a disgruntled employee.’

Despite a £50,000 reward offered by Gatwick and the involvement of the Armed Forces and MI5 to assist police, there is growing resignation that those behind the drone incursion may never be caught.  

Mr York apologised to the couple wrongly arrested over the chaos, defending the extended detention despite reports from the man’s employer that detectives failed to call him back to confirm an alibi he had provided. 

Gatwick Airport said it had lost at least £15million in revenue and airlines had lost more than £50million.

A spokesman for Sussex Police told the paper: ‘Resource levels were reviewed throughout and stood down as soon as practicable.

‘This figure reflects the cost of policing a deliberate criminal act of this nature.’ 

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