Gatwick 2018 analysis at Airprox Reality Check

A new page dedicated to analysing the events at Gatwick in December 2018 (known as Operation Trebor) is being hosted by Airprox Reality Check. 

The page has already been cited by Brendan Schulman former DJI Vice President of Policy and Government Relations in a recent interview, the overall analysis since 2018 and revelations in Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) responses has underpinned concerns that it was likely there never was a drone at Gatwick.

drone policy
Brenden Schulman

Brendan Schulman said it was “now clear” that the drama at Gatwick “did not actually involve a drone.”

The technology news website The Register reported that Philip Rowse, a respected drone engineer and CTO of CubePilot and Hex Aero was also of the view there was not a drone at Gatwick, Rowse himself had spoken to Sussex Police while Operation Trebor was ongoing offering support given his knowledge of self-build drones and potential means to identify and mitigate those.

We followed up with Philip Rowse, to understand the perspective of an engineer, given Philip has worked as both an aircraft and drone engineer, he told us “I am very well aware of what unmanned systems can and cannot do.  I am also aware of how easy it is to mistake lights in the night sky for a drone.“

Philip Rowse Cubepilot and Hex Aero

Like Brendan Schulman, Philip is clear in his view “There has been no evidence released of an actual drone because there was not a drone at Gatwick.“

In recent years, those that have looked at the evidence in detail have come to similar conclusions, most notably the journalist Samira Shackle that wrote a long-form investigative story for The Guardian in 2020

Meanwhile, Dr David Clarke, a former investigative journalist, who now teaches Media Law and Regulation has concluded the Gatwick narrative doesn’t add up, Dr Clarke had previously investigated an event of a phantom helicopter that shared a lot of parallels with Gatwick but having occurred in the 1970s had been forgotten about by most journalists and the police officers at Gatwick.

We caught up with Ian Hudson who has been part of the UK drone scene from the early days and is known for sarcastic words of wisdom on the Twitter account UAVHive and is behind the effort to collect Gatwick facts on Airprox Reality Check.

Why is there a need for a Gatwick 2018 page?

I wish there wasn’t a need for the page, I have far better things to do like watching Space 1999 on Britbox, but I believe passionately in the truth, in technology getting responsible and fair reporting.  One of my first jobs was in telecoms and I had to defend mobile phones from lies on a daily basis, I was in a call centre then taking abuse, I still recall being told by a customer their mobile phone would render them instantly unconscious every time they had an incoming call, I asked them to demonstrate this behaviour in person in a store, needless to say, they never did.

We do have to remember how technology is first received, the mobile phone we were told would microwave our brains, I remember watching the news, it was the BBC or ITV and the presenter was explaining that a human couldn’t catch a computer virus when they first became news, that seems ludicrous now.

Drones have been at that ludicrous news stage for years, the problem is unlike the mobile phone and computer, not every household owns one, far from it, so it’s a technology stuck at that stage of scaremongering where even the likes of the BBC still won’t present the technology with accuracy. 

In the 1980s the BBC had the BBC Microcomputer and responsibly dealt with computers in an accurate and balanced manner, despite drones being part of many TV productions, editorial staff still lean towards clickbait inaccuracy. 

I was particularly disappointed that BBC Panorama ran an episode on drones which was so poorly researched it ended with a sinister armed drone video, which a search just on Google would have revealed was a CGI spoof made for the Call of Duty video game promotion. 

Don’t even mention the BBC Horizon programme, the script for that must have been written on toilet roll.

I simply yearn for the day when an Airprox or visual sighting will be fact-checked, or when a journalist will realise the fact Falcon Shield that was brought in by the RAF was at Gatwick on the roof from day 2 and demonstrates evidence former Chief Constable Giles York gave to the defence parliamentary committee doesn’t add up, in fact, it’d just be nice if journalists could see that the entire evidence was the weakest explanation since a school kid told their teacher their dog ate their homework.

Falcon Shield

Thankfully though my faith in journalism was restored when Samira Shackle reached out, then Dr Clarke, in both cases people in the drone industry warned me not to speak to a journalist, saying they would just twist and misrepresent anything said about drones, neither did, they looked impartially at the facts and made their own conclusions.  That made me realise there needs to be a page of Gatwick FoIAs, analysis, technical data etc, that journalists in future or historians for that matter can look at the facts without having to spend weeks or months tracking everything down.

Is it true the Gatwick drone was only seen after sunset?

The recently released Operation Trebor timeline, records that malicious drone sightings only took place after sunset which doesn’t look good does it?  The C-UAS vendors have admitted to testing sorties, I assume those were done at daytime but as they were “friendly” flights those aren’t recorded.  I’ll be surprised if someone hasn’t been reprimanded and asked “why the hell didn’t you redact that?”

Talking of redactions, it’s alarming how much Gatwick data was redacted, I’ve never seen anything like it, the DfT wouldn’t even mark their redactions and simply removed pages of information that was discussing Detective Chief Superintendent Jason Tingley, there are a staggering 3,203 e-mails held by the DfT about Tingley that they don’t seem keen to have anyone see.

Is there any truth to the rumour of a Gatwick film?

I’ve not heard anything about a film, but if there is I want to be played by Peter Kay and every sighting of lights in the sky needs to be followed with a chase scene with a synth remix of the Benny Hill music playing.  I do know there is a BAFTA award-winning production company and director with a documentary they can deliver if any network wants to open their wallet, it’d surely make for a great Netflix piece, or maybe Amazon.

Have all the facts and analysis been uploaded or linked?

No there’s a fair bit to be added yet, there’s an interesting account from a former press photographer that lives locally, combined with flight data around the same time it suggests the lights on an NPAS helicopter without ADS-B could have caused one of the official sightings, I want to present that data and name the registration number of the helicopter, while it can’t be said to be 100% conclusive it can be said to be a feasible hypothesis.  We do know for example one of the first press photos “of the drones” was for sure an NPAS helicopter, so the events of Gatwick showed helicopters, planes, as well as police drones all, add to the confusion.

If you would like to send Gatwick data anonymously (or any other drone dilemma) you can always click the sUAS News tips tab above.

Are other people involved in the collection of the Gatwick data?

Yes, though given the size of the drone industry, nowhere near enough.  If anyone spots any data I’ve not credited them for, if they reach out I’ll correct that, anyone committing their time deserves a mention.