Guernsey Press

Only luck stopped illegal drone causing air display catastrophe

Good fortune alone prevented a catastrophe at last year’s Battle of Britain air display.

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The Guernsey Battle of Britain Air Display 2023. (Picture by Peter Frankland, 33227593)

The Magistrate’s Court heard yesterday that it was more by luck than judgement that people involved in the display and watching in St Peter Port escaped harm when a drone was flown illegally over the harbour and caused the event to be suspended.

Iurie Vahniuc, 42, of Flat 7, 96, Eastbury Road, Watford, admitted flying an unmanned aircraft in a manner likely to endanger aircraft and people in the area.

Judge Gary Perry fined Vahniuc £4,500 and told him he would not be getting his drone back.

‘Be in no doubt this is a very serious offence,’ he said.

‘You said you thought the display was over, but there was an obvious sign that it wasn’t by all the hundreds of people who were still waiting to see aircraft fly over.

‘You either took a calculated risk that there would be no more flying or ignored the obvious that the display was continuing. In a worst-case scenario, you could be facing far more serious charges, as anything could have happened.’

A civil servant with responsibility for the air display said it was very fortunate that there had not been a catastrophic outcome for pilots and members of the public.

Prosecuting Advocate Liam Roffey said it was thought to be the first case of its kind to come before the court.

Some 200 to 300 people were in or near North Beach car park and signs were displayed stating that a no-fly zone was in operation.

Shortly after midday, officers saw a drone flying at between 30ft and 40ft, and as a result the display was suspended, but with two further displays still due to take place. The drone then rose sharply and flew at a much higher level.

When seized later, it was found to have climbed to 156m, or 511ft, more than 300ft above the minimum height at which planes in the air display are permitted to fly.

The court was shown a still from a video recovered from the drone which showed Castle Cornet below. Officers saw the drone land in North Beach car park and spoke to the defendant. In interview later, he said he was an experienced drone flier but had not familiarised himself with Guernsey law.

He had seen the posters stating that flying was banned, but according to Advocate Roffey had seemingly ignored them.

Vahniuc said it was an impromptu act and claimed not to be aware of the flying area used for the display.

Advocate Paul Lockwood, defending Vahniuc, said his client had been in the island working and at the time of the air display was waiting for goods to arrive.

When he saw that there was an air display, he decided to record it. When the drone was flying at the lower level and there had been a lull in proceedings, he wrongly thought the display was over.

He accepted he had caused disruption and risk, but insisted that was unintentional. He said he thought the warning posters were outside the flying zone and accepted he should have checked before launching his drone.

He told the court he had been as disturbed as everyone else when he contemplated later what could have happened as a result of his actions.

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