A Virgin Atlantic flight with 455 passengers came within 300ft of hitting a drone just seconds after taking off from Gatwick, a near-miss report reveals.
The incident, which happened just days before the UK went into lockdown, came 15 months after the airport was closed for 30 hours and 1,000 flights were cancelled due to repeated drone sightings.
The Boeing 747 from London to Orlando was flying at 180mph at a height of 400ft when a flight attendant spotted the drone through a cabin window at 1.23pm on March 14 this year.
The steward, a former drone operator, estimated that the drone was around 300ft below the aircraft and around 330ft to 500ft away horizontally.
Investigators from the UK Airprox Board suggested that it might have been far nearer as the crew member was able to identify the make of the drone.
The report rated it as a Category B incident where safety had not been assured.
The drone flying at around 250ft was being flown illegally as it was in a restricted area close to the runway at Gatwick.
The operator of the drone could have been jailed for up to five years for endangering an aircraft, but it is believed they were never traced.
The report said: ‘In the Board’s opinion the reported altitude and/or description of the object were sufficient to indicate that it could have been a drone.
‘However, in order to positively identify the make some members felt that the assessment of separation from the aircraft may have been overestimated.
‘Ultimately, the Board agreed that the drone had likely been closer to the aircraft than the distance estimated by the reporter.
‘The Board considered that the crew member’s overall account of the incident portrayed a situation where safety had been much reduced below the norm to the extent that safety had not been assured.’
A Virgin Atlantic spokeswoman confirmed a drone had been seen by crew operating flight VS15 from Gatwick to Orlando after take-off on March 14.
She added: ‘The safety and security of our customers and crew is always our priority, the incident was immediately reported to Air Traffic Control, the CAA, the UK Airprox Board as well as the police in line with our procedures.’
More than 140,000 passengers had their flights cancelled when drone sightings forced the closure of Gatwick in December 2018.
Sussex Police said there were 129 separate sightings of drones including 109 from credible witnesses on a dozen separate occasions over three days.
A police investigation costing £790,000 found that at least two different drones were involved, but the culprits were never identified.
An innocent couple from Crawley were arrested and released without charge, and later sued Sussex police for wrongful arrest and false imprisonment
Last month it was revealed that they had been awarded £200,000 in compensation and legal costs in an out of court settlement.