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Police launch 'full criminal investigation' into drone sighting at London's Heathrow airport

Police have launched a "full criminal investigation" after a drone was seen at London's Heathrow airport on Tuesday, grounding departing planes for more than an hour.

U.K.'s busiest airport back up and running after planes were grounded 'as a precaution'

Passengers wait in line in departures at Heathrow airport in London on Tuesday. The airport halted departing flights for about an hour after a drone sighting. Police say they are opening a "full criminal investigation" to identify whoever is responsible for operating the drone. (Yui Mok/PA/Associated Press)

Police have launched a "full criminal investigation" after a drone was seen at London's Heathrow airport on Tuesday, grounding departing planes for more than an hour. 

"Police officers were amongst those who saw the drone," said Commander Stuart Cundy of the Metropolitan Police in a statement on Tuesday evening. "We are carrying out extensive searches around the Heathrow area to identify any people who may be responsible for the operation of the drone.

"I want to be clear that the illegal operation of drones at an airfield is extremely dangerous. Under the Aviation Security Act it is an offence to endanger the safety of an aircraft, anyone found guilty of this offence could face a life sentence," he said. 

The police first received reports of the drone shortly after 5 p.m. local time (noon ET), Cundy said, and worked with Heathrow airport to stop airplanes from departing "as a precaution" until investigators determined it was safe. 

Although the U.K.'s busiest airport is now "fully operational," the investigation continues as police deploy "significant resources — both in terms of officers and equipment — to monitor the airspace around Heathrow and to quickly detect and disrupt any illegal drone activity," he said. 

The police are getting "military assistance" but will not provide any further details about what that entails. 

A British Airways aircraft sits on the tarmac at Heathrow Airport in London on Tuesday. In a statement, police have said that "the illegal operation of drones at an airfield is extremely dangerous." (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

Cundy said police were using some of the "learning" gained when drone sightings shut down another London airport — Gatwick — for three consecutive days before Christmas. 

The Gatwick closure led to more than 100,000 people being stranded or delayed, making it the worst drone-related disruption at an international airport.

British Transport Minister Chris Grayling has said the problem at Gatwick had been resolved by "some smart and innovative use of new technology," but he didn't provide details, citing security reasons.

The person or persons responsible for the drones that shut down Gatwick have not been located and no group has claimed responsibility.

With files from The Associated Press

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