LONDON (AP) – Chagrined county police in England insisted Monday that drone sightings over London’s Gatwick Airport were authentic, while a former suspect in the aerial mystery that wreaked days of travel havoc complained bitterly about his treatment.
Sussex Police spent part of the day backpedaling from a senior detective’s comment that it was possible no drones had flown over the airport – a remark that sowed confusion over the grounded and diverted flights that affected tens of thousands of passengers.
“We can unequivocally state that there have been numerous illegal drone sightings at the airport over three days from 19 to 21 December,” Deputy Chief Constable Jo Shiner said.
The police confirmation was deemed necessary after Chief Detective Jason Tingley told the BBC on Sunday it was a “possibility” that people who reported seeing drones around Gatwick were mistaken. He was referring to the vulnerabilities of eyewitness accounts.
Nonetheless, the suggestion that a series of shutdowns at Britain’s second-busiest airport might have been based on inaccurate information generated fresh outrage the Sussex police department sought to dispel. A conviction could bring the drone operators a life prison sentence, Shiner said.
“There were numerous reports clustered around 37 occasions where a drone or drones were seen, and I am keen for those responsible to be brought to justice,” she said.
Both the county police department and the British news received criticism Monday for their handling of the arrests and subsequent release of two people who live near the airport. Police took the couple into custody on Friday and cleared them Sunday, saying they had been cooperative and were no longer under suspicion.
British newspapers published front-page photos of the man and woman and uncovered their names, which police had withheld. Speaking outside the couple’s home on Monday, Paul Gait said he and Elaine Kirk both felt “completely violated” and “deeply distressed” by the recent events. He said they were receiving medical care.
“Our home has been searched and our privacy and identity completely exposed,” Kirk said. “Our names, photos and other personal information have been broadcast throughout the world.”
Gatwick Airport was operating normally Monday, but military equipment remained in place to deter fresh incursions. The ramifications of the drone crisis continued to spread, as British ministers met via conference call to work on plans to better protect airports from drones.