THE military was working last night to thwart a ‘highly targeted drone attack’ at Gatwick that has thrown Christmas plans into chaos for tens of thousands of travellers.
Police were hunting the saboteurs playing cat and mouse with authorities by flying devices above the airport — grounding more than 800 planes. And defence secretary Gavin Williamson said the armed forces would deploy a ‘unique military capability’ to halt the worst drone disruption in UK history.
He refused to give further details but added: ‘We are there to assist and do everything we can.’
Police armed with Heckler and Koch rifles have orders to take out the drones but last night had been unable to safely take a shot. Nightflight restrictions at other airports were lifted in response to the crisis as bosses admitted they had no idea when services would resume.
A Cobra-style meeting of officials was held at Whitehall, although the attack was not being treated as terrorism.
Police were searching within a five-mile radius of Gatwick but the pilots or pilot — who could turn out to be just a lone malicious tech-savvy prankster — might be nowhere nearby.
‘This is going to be like finding a needle in a haystack and if these people don’t want to be found it’s going to be very hard to find them,’ technology expert Will Guyatt told the BBC.
‘Drones can be flown from indoors and some can even be pre-determined and pre-plotted, so these people may not even be in the UK. It’s perfectly clear that the UK has no response.’
The crisis began at 9pm on Wednesday when two drones were spotted hovering near the airport’s only runway. Bosses had to cancel flights because of the potential carnage if one of the ‘industrial-type’ drones hit a plane.
They gave pilots the all-clear at 3am yesterday but one drone reappeared minutes later and there were further sightings at 7am, 9am and midday.
Passengers already on board planes when the drones first turned up were kept waiting on them for hours.
And jets prevented from landing at Gatwick were diverted as far away as Amsterdam and Charles de Gaulle in Paris — where firefighters were called in to assist stranded fliers.
Passenger Joseph Ouechen said: ‘When the guys from the fire service came with the bottles and blankets it was feeling like a war, like a refugee, but I’m just flying to the UK.’ Some passengers re-routed to other UK airports had to endure long waits to disembark — with one jet held up for 12 hours at Birmingham because of a lack of staff.
At Gatwick yesterday passengers were facing a second night of sleeping in the departure lounge.
‘We were in Iraq with bombs going off and the planes still landed but here some drones have shut down the airport,’ said Mamosta Abdulla, who missed his father’s memorial service in Iraq.
People yet to set off from home were advised to stay away from Gatwick ‘today and for the forseeable future’.
At least 110,000 people have been affected by the attack, which Theresa May warned was punishable by up to five years in prison.
‘I feel for all those passengers whose travel plans have been disrupted,’ she said. ‘At this particular time of year this is particularly difficult for people.’
All the Ryanair flights due to arrive at or depart from Gatwick today will be sent to Stansted Airport instead, the airline announced last night.
■ HUNDREDS of thousands of passengers will be hit by a series of rail strikes this weekend over plans to cut guard numbers. South Western Railway and Northern Rail workers will take part in 24-hour walkouts tomorrow after rail union RMT called for industrial action. But London Underground strikes planned for today and tomorrow on the Central and Waterloo & City lines were called off last night after talks. The action is in protest at the sacking of a driver accused of failing a drugs test.