A British Airways pilot has been jailed for eight months after being found to be three times over the flight alcohol limit when he was led in handcuffs from his Boeing 777.

Julian Monaghan, 49, who worked for the airline for 17 years, had drunk three double vodkas with diet Pepsi in his hotel room before he was due to pilot a 12-hour flight from Gatwick to Mauritius on January 18.

The court was told that he had consumed the alcohol on an empty stomach before reporting for duty.

Boarding had begun and 300 passengers were on board when Verity McAllen, a technician who was performing final checks on the aircraft, noticed the smell of alcohol on Monaghan’s breath.

He was taken from the cockpit in handcuffs on suspicion of reporting for duty as a pilot while over the alcohol limit.

Monaghan was found to have 86mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood, more than three times over the 20mg limit for a pilot to be legally allowed to fly.

He initially questioned the test results but resigned from BA two months after his arrest when further tests confirmed the findings.

He pleaded guilty to the charge at Lewes crown court.

Passing sentence yesterday, Judge Janet Waddicor said: “You took a risk and it didn’t pay off because you were caught.

“You are in charge of a huge aircraft. The safety, if not the lives, indeed, of passengers and crew members are in the hands of the pilot. They are entitled to feel that they are safe.”

Monaghan said that he had abided by the airline’s ban on drinking in the eight hours before reporting for duty, which he described as the “bottle to throttle rule”, adding that he “felt fine”.

He said on his arrest that he had had a glass of wine while flying overnight as a passenger from Cape Town to Heathrow. He added that he had drunk a “measure” of vodka with diet Pepsi at 10.15am and then nothing afterwards, explaining that he had not eaten and had hardly slept.

Defending, Emlyn Jones said that the pilot had later remembered drinking three miniature bottles of vodka, each equivalent to a double shot.

Amy Packham, for the prosecution, said that he must have drunk a “significant amount” of alcohol just before the start of the eight-hour ban.

Det Con Stuart Macpherson, of Sussex Police, said: “Had Monaghan been required to take control of the aircraft in the event of an emergency on the flight deck in the early stages of the flight, his judgement and abilities would have been impaired.”

A British Airways spokeswoman told the BBC: “This behaviour is completely unacceptable and not what we expect from our highly professional fleet of pilots.

“The safety and security of our customers and colleagues is always our top priority.”