A former British Airways pilot who turned up for work to fly 300 passengers to Mauritius after downing three double vodkas has been jailed for eight months.

Julian Monaghan, 49, was hauled off a BA 777 by armed police after failing a breath test in the cockpit.

He admitted he started drinking at 10.15am in his hotel room at Gatwick after flying into Heathrow overnight from South Africa.

He drank three miniature bottles of vodka, mixed with Coke, before he was due to be a pilot on the 9.20pm flight.

The doors were closed and the flight was about to push back when police boarded.

BA rules prohibit staff from drinking eight hours before work.

Airport technician Verity McAllen noticed a smell of alcohol on his breath despite Monaghan chewing gum as final checks were carried out on the plane.

She reported her concerns and police were called. Monaghan was one of two senior officers on board. Police waited five minutes before testing Monaghan after asking him to remove his gum.

Officers noticed the smell of drink on him as they drove him to Crawley police station, even though he was still chewing gum.

Judge Janet Waddicor, sitting at Lewes Crown Court, said passengers and public had the right to expect commercial pilots not to be over the alcohol limit.

She reduced his sentence from 12 months for his early guilty plea.

The judge said the flight was delayed by one hour and 40 minutes “entirely because you had presented with an alcohol reading four times the limit for pilots”.

She said: “The limits for pilots are pitched deliberately low because of the responsibility which attaches to the job. The lives of the people on board are in the hands of the pilot. The people who live on the flight path are entitled to feel they are safe. It may be you would have got away with it because you say you weren’t aware you were over the limit. You say you were staggered at the reading and when the police reading was confirmed you resigned.”

Amy Packham, for the Crown, said: “He maintains he hadn’t had any alcohol in the eight hours before reporting for duty.

“The Crown submit that eight hours is a long period of time and if that is correct, there must have been a significant amount consumed just prior to that for the reading to be as high as it was ten hours later. He was over the limit even for a car, for a pilot he was four times over.

“He was shocked when told he was being arrested and was surprised at the reading.”

As soon as blood test results were confirmed, Monaghan resigned.

Emlyn Jones, defending, said he had lost everything and was now a shadow of the man who had dreamed of being a pilot as a young boy.

He said the former BA pilot will never fly commercially again and he offered an unreserved apology to the passengers and his family.

Mr Jones said the father of two has not spoken to his son, now sitting GCSEs, since the incident.

Staff called 999 shortly before take-off from Gatwick on January 18.

Stewards decided to call the police before the plane left the departure gate. Monaghan was arrested and led off the aircraft in handcuffs.

He admitted having 86mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood in his system. The limit for pilots is 20mg.

Monaghan, who divides his time between South Africa and London, admitted being over the limit when he appeared at Crawley Magistrates’ Court on June 6 and was sent to Crown Court for sentencing.