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Aircraft are based at the airport of Gatwick, near London, the airport remains closed, with incoming flights delayed or diverted to other airports, after drones were spotted over the field last night and this morning, Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018. The London Gatwick Airport remained closed during the busy holiday period Thursday, while the police and the airport officials to investigate reports that drones flying in the vicinity of the airport. (AP Photo/Tim Ireland)
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The people in the queue at the airport of Gatwick airport, near London, the airport remains closed, with incoming flights delayed or diverted to other airports, after drones were spotted over the field last night and this morning, Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018. The London Gatwick Airport remained closed during the busy holiday period Thursday, while the police and the airport officials to investigate reports that drones flying in the vicinity of the airport. (AP Photo/Tim Ireland)
LONDON – Drones spotted over the runway forced the closure of London’s Gatwick Airport on Thursday during one of the busiest times of the year, stranding or delaying tens of thousands of Christmas season travellers out to a yacht for the operator of the intruding aircraft.
The prospect of a deadly collision between what the police, the so-called “industrial”-grade drones and aircraft led authorities to stop all flights in and out of.
The police said they had no doubt about the break-in was a deliberate attempt to disrupt the activities at the airport during a peak period, but that there is “absolutely no indications to suggest that this is terror-related.”
About 20 police units of the two forces tried in vain to get the drone operator as soon as the first unmanned aircraft was spotted above Gatwick on Wednesday evening. The police told airport officials it was too risky to try to shoot down the drones — stray bullets can kill someone.
“Every time that we believe that we are close to the operator, the drone disappears. When we look at the re-opening of the airport, the drone comes back,” said Sussex Police chief Inspector Justin Burtenshaw. He said that the newer generation of drones are larger and have a greater range, making it more difficult for the police to zero in on the person of the device.
Defence Minister Gavin Williamson said that the army would be deployed to help the police. He said that the army would bring “unique capabilities” but gave no details.
Drones could get sucked into a jet engine or crash through a windshield, incapacitating the pilot.
The crisis at the Gatwick airport had a domino effect on air travel in Britain, continental Europe and beyond, as incoming flights were sent to other locations, and outgoing ones were stopped.
Travelers described a frost overnight stay at Gatwick hundreds slept on sofas and floors, and the passengers and their families, who complained that they were not informed about redirected flights.
“We understand that it is an emergency situation, but the lack of information is really surprising,” said Vanessa Avila, an American based in Britain, who works for the U.S. army. Her mother was on a flight from Florida to Gatwick that finally landing in the northern English city of Manchester.
Gatwick — Britain’s second busiest airport by passengers — first closed up his job Wednesday night after two drones were spotted. It reopened briefly at about 3 pm and Thursday, but shut down 45 minutes later, after further observations.
The airport, about 30 miles (45 kilometres) south of London, sees more than 43 million passengers per year. Approximately 110,000 had been scheduled to pass through on Thursday.
The police said that the drones were of an “industrial specification,” an indication they were not a small, cheap machines. The larger drones are more dangerous rays during the flight and can remain in the air longer than the models that are sold for amateur-lovers.
The airport’s two terminals were jammed with thousands of weary travelers.
“I have not slept since yesterday morning. We are very tired. It’s freezing, we are cold, wearing all these layers for extra blankets,” said Andri Kyprianou of Cyprus, which the flight to Kiev was cancelled.
“There were pregnant women. One of them was to sleep on the floor. There were people with small babies in during the night. We saw people with disabilities on chairs. There were young children sleeping on the floor.”
Passengers complained on Twitter that their Gatwick-bound flights had been diverted to the Airport of London Heathrow, Manchester, Birmingham and other cities.
Luke McComiskie, who landed in Manchester, more than 160 miles (260 km) to London, said that the situation “was just chaos, and they had but two buses (buses) and taxis charging people 600 pounds ($760) to Gatwick.”
Pilots have reported numerous close calls with drones in the past few years in great Britain and the aviation authorities have warned of the growing risk of a catastrophic collision. Great britain has toughened its laws on drones, and fly within 1 km (0.6 miles) of an airport is an offence punishable by up to five years in prison.
Gatwick airport briefly closed his job last year, when a drone was spotted in the area. A drone also briefly led to the closure of the international airport of Dubai in 2016.
Associated Press writer Jill Lawless in London contributed