American spy plane triggers UK air alert

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A US air force remote-controlled spy plane with the wing span of a Boeing 737 entered UK airspace without permission, causing a major alert, The Independent on Sunday has learnt.

Air-traffic controllers hurriedly granted the Global Hawk drone privileged airspace reserved for the Royal Family after the incursion was discovered, according to a senior defence official.

The incident is believed to have occurred during trials last year of the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in Germany, one of a number of Western nations keen to buy the spy plane.

A USAF prototype drone flew six sorties over the North Sea during tests in October and November last year. The Global Hawk, first used to spy on al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan, is said to have eavesdropped on shipping and radar stations during missions from a German naval base near Hamburg.

But the drone sparked a serious alert when it illegally strayed into UK airspace. "We had no idea what this thing was, had to hurriedly identify it and then give it 'purple airspace'. It was a major embarrassment that has been hushed up," said a civil servant.

"Purple airspace" is an exclusion zone usually reserved for the Royal Flight that typically forbids other aircraft from flying either 15 minutes ahead or 30 minutes behind the privileged aircraft.

Gerald Howarth, the Tory defence spokesman, called for ministers to account for the incursion. "This disturbing report suggests that there is no effective control over the use of UAVs in civil airspace."