THE government has slammed bungling cops over the Gatwick drone probe shambles after they performed an embarrassing U-turn and admitted there was a drone.
Sussex Police have been blasted after Paul Gait, 47, and wife Elaine Kirk, 54, were yesterday released without charge following 36 hours of questioning.
Now ministers for the Department of Transport have branded police communication a “mess up” – after they backtracked over whether there was a drone in the first place.
In an hour-long conference call with Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, it was acknowledged police “have not handled their communication response well”.
Christmas chaos at Gatwick, what we know so far…
Government sources told The Sun that a combination of wrong police protocols and poor media management caused yesterday’s slip-up.
Detective Chief Superintendent Jason Tingley sensationally claimed yesterday there was a “possibility” there may not have been a drone, but the force put out a correction today.
He said: “We are actively investigating sightings of drone activity at Gatwick Airport following 67 reports from the evening of the 19 December to 21 December from the public, passengers, police officers and staff at the airport.”
It comes after Gatwick Airport confirmed in a statement today there had been “multiple sightings” of the drone that left more than 140,000 passengers stranded last week.
And in a further embarrassment, cops were scrambled to investigate a new “drone sighting” after the Gatwick chaos – but it turned out to be lights on top of a crane.
Police have been blasted over the “appalling investigation” and said yesterday they found a “damaged” machine close to the airport.
Det Ch Sup Jason Tingley, of Sussex Police, said there was “no available footage and they are relying on witness accounts.”
Asked about speculation if there was never a drone, he said: “Of course, that’s a possibility. We are working with human beings saying they have seen something.”
His comments left ministers baffled as drones appeared to have been caught on camera and cops even reported the device user flashed lights at them, The Times reports.
They are also working through information relating to “persons of interest” and are investigating more than 67 drone sightings and forensically examining the damaged drone.
And police have stumped up a £50,000 reward to catch the Gatwick Grinch following last week’s Christmas getaway hell.
It comes after friends of the married couple hit out at cops over the farce – and said the arrest would “mentally destroy” window fitter Paul.
John Allard, who runs Allard Double Glazing, claimed he had tried to call cops to clear Paul’s name but officers never phoned him back.
He said: “Obviously the police could have handled it better just by asking the who, when and where. The police have handled this absolutely appallingly, they really have.”
John explained how window fitter Paul had been working on Wednesday in Kent and was driving John’s injured daughter around on Friday.
He said: “I know Paul well, he’s worked for me for 17 years and this is going to hit him like a 10-tonne truck. Paul Gait is as harmless as a bloody newborn fly.
“He really is, he’s the most inoffensive bloke you’ll ever meet.
“Although there was a complete lack of evidence, the police ripped his house apart. I know this will mentally destroy him.
“Sussex Police have really dropped the ball on this. I have always supported the police and I like to think I always would but in this case I think they have really got it wrong.”
Elaine and Paul both looked tired yesterday as they arrived home in Crawley – just five miles from Gatwick Airport.
Forensic officers spent Saturday combing through their home and vehicles looking for potential evidence before confirming they were no longer suspects.
Det Chief Sup Tingley said: “Both people have fully co-operated with our enquiries and I am satisfied that they are no longer suspects in the drone incidents at Gatwick.
“Our inquiry continues at a pace to locate those responsible for the drone incursions, and we continue to actively follow lines of investigation.”
Pals claimed Paul, who reportedly served in Bosnia and Northern Ireland with the Royal Artillery, can’t have been behind the attacks that saw 1,000 flights cancelled or diverted.
John’s daughter Gemma, who helps run Allard Double Glazing in East Sussex and has a child with Paul, insists he was having a cup of tea with her at the time of the attacks.
The 40-year-old told the Mirror: “He was with me at work the whole time the drones were up. Paul comes to my house every morning – I’ve got a child with him.
“The morning of this going on, he was sitting in my front room having a cup of tea with me – and the rest of the day he was working.
“They need to let him out and catch the right people. Paul wouldn’t do this, no chance.”
Stunned neighbours also believe Paul may have been targeted by police because he had an interest in flying drones and remote-controlled helicopters.
One said: “It’s obvious the police have screwed this up big time. We think they arrested him because he’d been in trouble over his helicopters about two years ago.
“His neighbour called police because he was flying it over the cul-de-sac. The theory is they swooped on them because of his history flying the drone.
“But obviously the person who has really done it has done a runner in the time they’ve been interviewing Paul and Elaine.”
Cops are now under pressure to find the true culprit – with fears rising they could strike again causing further travel chaos for thousands.
Gatwick has now fully reopened after the chaos last week saw 1,000 flights affected and more than 140,000 people stranded.
The drama unfolded on Wednesday at 9pm after two drones were spotted close to Britain’s second busiest airport.
The runway reopened the next day but had to be closed again after more drone reports – with 246 departures and 202 arrivals hit.
As cops investigated more than 50 sightings of drones, the runway was suspended again on Friday for an hour after another sighting.
The chaos meant the Army employed “drone killer” tech used in fight against ISIS as the cat and mouse game between the moronic drone pilot and authorities continued.
The £2.6million technology uses a radio frequency jammer to crash drones.
The Israeli-made devices feature four radars covering a six-mile radius.
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In July, the Government restricted drones to 400ft and banned them from flying within 1km of an airport.
Recreational drones are fitted with GPS “geo-fencing” preventing them from flying near restricted airspace, including airports.
If convicted, the drone grinch could face up to five years in prison.
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