When a former accountant Linda Davidsen purchased a drone a few days ago, she did so with a very clear plan in mind. She would try to use it to bring chaos to Europe’s busiest airport.
Davidsen, 49, is one of several climate activists hoping to force Heathrow authorities to temporarily ground all flights by operating drones on Friday outside the airport’s perimeter fence, but within its no-fly zone.
Activists from the group, known as Heathrow Pause, say their drones will only be flown at head-height, far away from the runways and any planes, and pose no risk. Police disagree though, saying the airspace around all airports is “restricted for public safety and security.”
On Thursday, the tension escalated when five of the group’s activists were arrested on “suspicion of conspiracy to commit a public nuisance.” Despite losing at least two of their pilots, Heathrow Pause said on Twitter that Friday’s protest will carry on “exactly as planned.”
UK law enacted in March 2019 states that any drone flying within 5 kilometers (3 miles) of an airport risks endangering aircraft.
The exclusion zone was increased from one kilometer by the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) after drone flights at Gatwick and Heathrow airports near London grounded 1,000 flights in December 2018 and January of this year.
The sightings, which affected tens of thousands of people, exposed a soft spot in airport security where potentially just one individual with a drone can cause widespread chaos. Heathrow Pause says exploiting this vulnerability is the only way to draw people’s attention to the climate emergency.
“I could no longer just sit back and let things carry on as normal,” Davidsen told CNN. “I refuse to leave a dying planet for future generations by not taking an action.”
She said her main goal is to force the UK government to take climate change seriously – for example by scrapping its plans to build a third runway at Heathrow.
Davidsen’s determination to “do something” is so strong, she is willing to go to jail – a likely outcome given that flying a drone within the airport’s exclusion zone is illegal, and punishable by a prison sentence of five years and/or an unlimited fine.
In fact, ending up in handcuffs appears to be an essential part of her plan.
“We have been studying defiance from the last 150 years,” she said. “The way to force change is by attempting disruptive, non-violent, respectful action that has an element of sacrifice.”
The sacrifice, said Davidsen, will be her imprisonment.
It won’t be difficult for the police to find her. Heathrow Pause has publicly announced its plans, held several meetings with authorities, published press releases, and shared its detailed plans on social media.
In fact, Davidsen, from Northampton, in central England, said that once her drone is in the air, the group will call the police to alert them so they can come to arrest her.
The Metropolitan Police said it was ready to act. “Far from this being a lawful protest, this is the deliberate and criminal targeting of an essential part of the UK’s national infrastructure that thousands of people rely on every day and it will not be tolerated,” the Met’s Deputy Assistant Commissioner Laurence Taylor said in a statement.
He said the force will be deploying extra officers for the operation, and has warned activists they will be prosecuted.
Heathrow said it will work closely with the police and other authorities to keep planes flying. The Met said it has a “robust policing plan” to make sure any disruption is “averted or kept to a minimum.”
Davidsen says she is also ready. “[We will] without doubt end up serving some time in prison and that’s going to have a huge impact for us personally, and for our families,” she admitted.
“We’re hoping that this action could be the pivotal change we need in the society, for people to really wake up and say ‘wow, these people are prepared to go to prison, they are good people, ordinary, law abiding people, not extreme activists, acting to make a change that we all need.’”
She is taking her activism seriously, having quit her job as an accountant in July in order to focus on the cause. She is living off her life savings.
Earlier this year, the UK declared a climate emergency and set itself a legally binding target of becoming carbon neutral by 2050.
While the government was praised for adopting the 2050 target, it has been criticized for the lack of concrete policy proposals that would help the country achieve it.
It didn’t help that the target was announced around the same time the government approved plans to expand Heathrow by building an extra runway.
“They cannot take this emergency seriously and increase flights,” said Davidsen. “They cannot do that. It’s insane.”
The third runway is something of a political hot potato. Boris Johnson, whose West London constituency is near the airport, famously opposed the plans on environmental grounds. Before he became prime minister, he even pledged to “lie down in front of those bulldozers and stop the construction of that third runway.”
John Stewart, chair of the Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise, a campaign group representing residents living under the flight path, said he hoped the runway plans could still be stopped. “There is this greater awareness of climate change and we’ve got a prime minister, and the leader of the opposition, both of whom have real doubts about the third runway,” he said.
Like most members of the Heathrow Pause group, Davidsen has been active within the Extinction Rebellion – the environmental activists who brought London to a standstill in April by blocking streets in central London.
However, Extinction Rebellion has stressed the Heathrow action is separate. “Extinction Rebellion UK does not support an action at Heathrow as designed at this time,” the group said in a statement, admitting that “people in the movement have had different views around this proposed action.”
“Tension has arisen from figuring out the most effective way to tell the truth about the Climate and Ecological Emergency we face,” it added.
Davidsen has spent the last few days learning how to fly the drone she purchased for £45 ($55.50). On Friday, she is planning to fly it no higher than six feet up, about a mile from the airport.
She insists the action will pose no danger. “It has no impact on [or] any risk to any person or any flight, which is the whole purpose of it because we are completely non violent,” Davidsen said.
The group also rejected blame for any travel disruption. “If any planes are grounded, it will be Heathrow Airport’s decision,” it said in a statement.
However, Davidsen has made it clear grounding flights is exactly what the group wants – and said there are enough activists equipped with drones to keep the disruption going for a while.
If one gets arrested, another will pop up with a drone somewhere else, they claim.