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Pilot Freed On Bail

A veteran Virgin Atlantic Airways pilot accused of showing up drunk to fly a plane with almost 400 passengers from Washington to London was released from jail Monday after posting $25,000 bond.

Authorities ordered Richard George Harwell to surrender his passport and not to leave the country while awaiting his next court appearance, scheduled for February 3.

Harwell, 55, was dressed in an orange jumpsuit when he appeared for his bond hearing on a closed circuit television link from jail, where he was held since his arrest at Washington Dulles International Airport late Friday.

Security screeners alerted Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority Police after detecting alcohol on Harwell's breath, an airport spokeswoman said. Officers escorted Harwell off the plane and questioned him at the airport before charging him with attempting to operate an aircraft while under the influence of an intoxicating drug or alcohol.

The 383 passengers and crew of 17 on flight VS 022 spent Friday night at local hotels, with their flight finally leaving Saturday night, more than 26 hours late. Passengers received a voucher for a free flight on the airline.

Harwell spent the weekend at the Loudoun County Adult Detention Center in Leesburg, about 40 miles west of Washington, D.C. The 14-year Virgin Atlantic veteran remained suspended by the airline, which said Harwell is a U.S. citizen who lives in London and had a spotless record with the company.

If convicted, Harwell could be sentenced to as much as five years in prison.

Paul Moore, a spokesman for Virgin Atlantic, said the British Air Line Pilots Association posted bond for Harwell, and the airline is paying his legal fees.

According to Moore, prior to Friday Harwell had a "completely unblemished record" with the airline. "We will be talking to him and the authorities over the coming weeks to find out what has happened," said Moore.

Moore added, "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."

Harwell's lawyers tried to persuade Loudoun County Traffic Court Judge James Forsythe to allow their client to return home.

"He's not doing well. He has a medical condition - a heart condition," lawyer Thomas Hill told the judge. Outside court Hill declined to elaborate about the heart condition.

"He's a model of stability in terms of his life," Hill told the judge. Hill said his client has been married 25 years, and his wife and two children live in London. "He's not a flight risk at all."

"Mr. Harwell has had a long and distinguished career, he has an exemplary record. He would never purposely do anything to jeopardize anyone's safety," Hill added, speaking to reporters after the hearing.

Prosecutors were against any bond because Harwell lives overseas.

Federal Aviation Agency spokeswoman Laura Brown said the agency, which licenses pilots to fly within the United States, will carry out a civil investigation parallel to the Virginia state criminal probe to determine Harwell's status.

"The two investigations are not really related, except they relate to the same incident," Brown said. A pilot must have a valid airman's certificate - a pilot's license - and medical certificate to operate commercial aircraft in the United States, she said.

In such cases as the Dulles incident, she said, the medical certificate might be revoked if the pilot were found to have been medically unfit to fly.

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