The vulnerability of Britain’s airports was exposed again last night after a drone sighting paralysed Heathrow.
Just three weeks after the fiasco at Gatwick, flights were grounded at Heathrow for more than an hour – causing misery for travellers.
A single reported sighting of a drone was enough to shut down Europe’s biggest airport for almost 90 minutes at the busiest time of day. A massive police operation was launched, with the Army immediately put on standby to deploy specialist equipment.
Heathrow last night confirmed it has ordered millions of pounds of military-grade anti-drone equipment but refused to say whether it has been deployed yet.
Travellers stuck in their seats on taxiing aircraft watched airport vehicles on the runway desperately hunting the drone.
The pilot of one flight to Hong Kong reportedly told passengers the drone was seen ‘at the takeoff point on the runway’.
Travel experts estimated the incident led to 40 flight delays.
Measures to install anti-drone missiles and detectors were promised in the wake of the Gatwick chaos, which crippled services in the run-up to Christmas. Potential solutions are thought to include the Israeli-designed Drone Dome, which can detect and jam communications.
Metropolitan Police officers at the airport are reported to have been practising using ‘net’ bazookas to bring down rogue drones. But they are not thought to be ready to use them to protect the airport yet.
Last night’s chaos showed the menace is far from being thwarted. It comes barely 24 hours after the Government laid out plans to give airport workers the power to shoot down drones with net bazookas and shotguns.
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling scrambled to reassure the public he had the situation under control, tweeting: ‘I have already spoken to both the Home Secretary and Defence Secretary and the military are preparing to deploy the equipment used at Gatwick at Heathrow quickly should it prove necessary.’
Yet despite police, military and transport chiefs having three weeks to prepare for another drone attack, Heathrow was forced to suspend operations at 5.05pm last night as a precautionary measure after ‘reports of a sighting of a drone in the vicinity’.
Flights resumed after an hour, and a Heathrow spokesman said: ‘Based on standard operating procedures, working with air traffic control and the Met Police, we have resumed departures out of Heathrow following a short suspension. We continue to monitor this situation and apologise to any passengers that were affected by this disruption.’
US airports use frequency jammers or ‘early warning’ systems to tell air traffic control if a drone is approaching, neither of which are in place at UK airports. Heathrow, which has two runways, carries 78million passengers a year – 32million more than single-runway Gatwick.
Ministers have announced a package of measures designed to give police extra powers to combat drones. The exclusion zone around airports will be extended to approximately three miles, with additional extensions from runway ends.
Ministers also announced that operators of drones weighing between 250g and 20kg will be required to register and take an online drone pilot competency test. Police will also be able to issue fixed-penalty notices for minor drone offences.
Fines of up to £100 could be given for offences such as failing to comply with a police officer when instructed to land a drone, or not showing their registration to operate one.