THE UK’S first woman to captain a jumbo jet has retired after landing at Gatwick for the last time.

Virgin Atlantic pilot Yvonne Kershaw fought back tears as she described stepping off the Boeing 747 flight from Cancun, Mexico.

The crew faced a challenging journey after a passenger was taken ill but the aircraft landed in London as planned, where it was met by an ambulance.

Mrs Kershaw, a grandmother from Petworth, joined the airline in 1990 and was granted command of the aircraft three years later.

The 64-year-old said many people have “preconceptions about what an airline captain should look like” and recalled that initially the main response from passengers was “surprise”.

She said: “I suppose normally they would expect to see a silver-haired fox flying the aeroplane in command.

“It took a few years before people got used to seeing a woman coming out of the flight deck and being in charge.”

She added: “Breaking down those barriers wasn’t easy but nobody ever said it would be.

“What you need is passion about your job, determination and skill.”

Mrs Kershaw said she hoped her career would encourage women to pursue their passion.

She said: “I really, really hope that it will inspire girls to consider flying. Or anything they want to do. You can do it - I’ve proved it.”

Mrs Kershaw learned to fly aged just 19 and after initially flying small aircraft around Europe and north Africa she gained her commercial licence and began piloting executive jets.

She worked at a UK regional airline named British Island Airways before joining Virgin Atlantic when its fleet comprised only four 747s.

“I felt very proud that I was able to do it,” she said. “It’s such an iconic aeroplane and it’s what I wanted to fly. For decades it was the largest aircraft in the world and the most loved by everybody.

“That’s why I joined Virgin Atlantic. For the opportunity to fly the aeroplane and be part of the Virgin family.”

Mrs Kershaw has clocked up more than 2,000 flights and 18,000 flying hours in the flight deck of the four-engine 455-seat jet.

She said she will miss the role “enormously”, adding: “With long-haul it’s not a job, it’s a way of life, because you spend so much time away from home with crew. They become part of your extended family.”

Mrs Kershaw said she felt “slightly tearful” following the final flight, when the crew decorated the aeroplane with photographs.