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Virgin pilot on drink-fly charge

A Virgin transatlantic flight
A Virgin transatlantic flight

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Virgin Atlantic
London Heathrow Airport

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A Virgin Atlantic pilot detained by police in Washington has been charged with attempting to operate an aircraft while under the influence of alcohol, an airline spokesman said.

Captain Richard Harwell, 55, who is American but based in the UK, had been due to take 383 passengers on Virgin Atlantic flight VS22 from Dulles airport, Washington, to Heathrow airport in London when he was arrested.

Passengers faced a 23-hour delay after the incident.

The spokesman told the UK's Press Association that Capt. Harwell had been with the airline 14 years and had an "unblemished record."

"Everyone at Virgin Atlantic is shocked and surprised," the spokesman said.

"This is unprecedented -- it's the first time it has happened in the 20 years we've been operating and is totally out of character for Captain Harwell, who is an extremely experienced and popular pilot.

"We are at a loss to explain what has happened."

Capt. Harwell, who has been stood down from duty, was still in custody and the issue of bail would be established later, he added.

The airline has started an internal inquiry into the incident.

"We will be talking to him and the authorities over the coming weeks to find out what has happened," the spokesman said.

According to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, Transportation Safety Administration security officials reported the pilot after one of its security screeners suspected he had been drinking.

Airport police then responded to the gate where the plane was set to depart and escorted the pilot from the aircraft.

"The pilot has been suspended with immediate effect and will face an internal inquiry," said Tara Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority.

The stranded travellers were put up in hotels until a new crew could be found.

They were expected to leave Washington at 6:15 p.m. local time Saturday (2315 GMT), arriving at London Heathrow early Sunday, 23 hours late.

Capt. Harwell lives in the UK with his family.

-- CNN's Michael McManus contributed to this report

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