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Britain called in the army on Thursday to help police hunt a drone pilot who grounded all flights from Gatwick airport, leaving thousands stranded on one of the busiest days of the year.
The airport closed its only runway late Wednesday following ‘reports of two drones flying in and around the airfield’ and further sightings on Thursday, according to Gatwick’s CEO Stewart Wingate.
The closure, which remained in place at 6pm Thursday (1800 GMT), stranded tens of thousands of travellers days before Christmas – and prompted the unusual military operation.
‘We will be deploying the armed forces to… deal with the situation with the drones at Gatwick Airport,’ Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson told Sky News television.
‘We are there to assist and do everything we can,’ he said, declining to give the troops’ exact role and adding that it followed a request from local police.
Gatwick, around 30 miles (50 kilometres) south of the British capital, is the eighth-busiest airport in Europe and sits behind Mumbai as the world’s busiest single runway air hub.
Inbound flights were diverted to other airports while passengers waiting to take off faced gruelling delays as airlines cut services.
Easyjet, Gatwick’s biggest operator, said it had cancelled all its flights in and out of the hub for the day.
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said night-flight restrictions would be lifted at some airports Thursday night to help ease the situation.
‘It’s right and proper that we try and sort people’s Christmases out,’ he said.
Some 10,000 passengers were affected on Wednesday night, and a further 110,000 who had been due to either take off or land at the airport on 760 flights Thursday.
‘Highly targeted activity’
Two drones were first spotted flying over Gatwick at around 9:00 pm (2100 GMT) on Wednesday. The airfield briefly reopened at 3:00 am on Thursday, but had to be closed again following further sightings.
Gatwick CEO Wingate said the incident was ‘a highly targeted activity which has been designed to close the airport and bring maximum disruption in the run up to Christmas’.
‘We are still not in a position to say when it will be safe to reopen the airport,’ he added in a statement Thursday evening. ‘As soon as we can we will. ‘ 
Authorities earlier said it would be dangerous to shoot at the drone due to the danger of stray bullets.
A cat-and-mouse manhunt is under way to catch those operating the drones, with more than 20 police units and dozens of officers from two local forces deployed.
Sussex Police said they believed that the devices ‘are of an industrial specification’.
Police superintendent Justin Burtenshaw said: ‘We believe this to be a deliberate act to disrupt the airport. However, there are absolutely no indications to suggest this is terror-related.’
He added: ‘Each time we believe we get close to the operator, the drone disappears; when we look to reopen the airfield, the drone reappears.’
‘It’s childish’
Gisele Fenech, 43, who was travelling to Malta, was among those stranded at the airport.
‘We’re meeting family and it’s my daughter’s birthday today so it’s gone all wrong. We’ve been looking forward to this for so long,’ she told AFP.
‘Everyone’s trying to get home for Christmas.’
British Prime Minister Theresa May said she sympathised with passengers and vowed action.
‘We will continue to work with the Gatwick authorities and police will be working… in order to bring this to a close,’ she said at a press conference in London.
Inside the airport, weary passengers faced a grim wait to reach their destinations, with many returning home for the holidays.
Musab Rashid, 22, who was going to Copenhagen, said: ‘It’s wrong, it’s childish of them to do this, because it’s affected more than 100,000 people.’
Karin Sjostrom-Nandris, 49, who was heading to Stockholm, said: ‘We can’t really leave this queue because this seems to be the only place we could possibly find out any information. 
‘The queue looks like it’s several hours long, so we could be here for some time.’
Under a new British law, drones cannot be flown near aircraft or within a kilometre of an airport, or at an altitude of over 400 feet (122 metres). 
May warned the perpetrators they could face up to five years in prison for endangering an aircraft under recently passed legislation.
‘We’re consulting on further aspects of this including further police powers,’ she added.
Gatwick serves more than 228 destinations in 74 countries for 45 million passengers a year.