A former Virgin Atlantic Airways pilot accused in December of trying to fly a Boeing 747 after drinking alcohol has pleaded guilty in Loudoun County Circuit Court to a misdemeanor charge of interfering with the operation of an aircraft.
Richard G. Harwell, 55, was arrested Dec. 19, shortly before he was scheduled to fly a plane carrying 400 passengers and crew members from Dulles International Airport to London's Heathrow Airport. Harwell smelled of alcohol and his speech was slurred when he was escorted from the cockpit by a Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority police sergeant five minutes before the plane's scheduled departure, according to court documents.
Harwell, who pleaded guilty July 13, has resigned from his job with the airline and will serve a year of unsupervised probation in London, where he lives with his wife and two children, said his attorney, Thomas C. Hill. Circuit Court Judge Thomas D. Horne also imposed a six-month jail sentence and suspended all but three days, which Harwell served after his arrest, Hill said.
Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Stephen Sincavage said there was evidence that Harwell had alcohol in his system, but he said prosecutors could not prove that Harwell took any action to operate the plane before his arrest.
Hill said his client, a U.S. citizen who was ordered to remain in the United States pending a resolution in the case, is pleased that the legal proceedings are concluded. Hill said he does not know whether Harwell, who had worked for the airline for 14 years as a captain and who holds a British pilot's license, will seek work as a pilot again.
"He was one of the most senior pilots at Virgin Atlantic. He resigned from his position, and he has been separated from his family," Hill said. "He certainly has suffered greatly from what has happened."
Hill said he does not know whether Harwell has returned to London but said, "If he's not there yet, he will be shortly."
A British Civil Aviation Authority spokesman said yesterday that privacy laws prevent him from commenting on the status of any pilot's license.
Harwell was arrested after a Dulles security employee reported smelling alcohol on the pilot's breath, airport officials have said. According to court documents, a breath test given to Harwell showed a blood alcohol level of 0.11, more than twice the limit set by federal regulations.
The police sergeant who approached Harwell in the cockpit said that Harwell stumbled as he left and that his eyes were bloodshot, according to court records. Harwell initially was charged with operating an aircraft under the influence of alcohol.
The flight was canceled after Harwell's arrest, and the airline offered passengers overnight hotel accommodations before flying them to London the next day. Passengers also were given vouchers for a free trip anywhere the airline flies.
After Harwell's arrest, a Virgin Atlantic spokeswoman said Harwell had had a "stellar reputation" with the airline. He was placed on administrative leave with pay but resigned in March.
Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Jim Peters said yesterday that the agency, which sets a blood alcohol limit of 0.04 for pilots and forbids them to fly a plane within eight hours of taking a drink, conducted an investigation and forwarded that information to the British Civil Aviation Administration. Peters said he could not disclose the results of the FAA investigation.