The UK’s first woman to captain a jumbo jet has retired after landing at Gatwick Airport for the last time.
Virgin Atlantic pilot Yvonne Kershaw fought back tears as she described stepping off the Boeing 747 flight from Cancun, Mexico, on Wednesday morning.
The crew faced a challenging journey after a passenger was taken ill but the aircraft landed in London as planned, where it was met by an ambulance.
Mrs Kershaw, a grandmother from Petworth, West Sussex, joined the airline in 1990 and was granted command of the aircraft three years later.
The 64-year-old said many people have “preconceptions about what an airline captain should look like” and recalled that initially the main response from passengers was “surprise”.
She told the Press Association: “I suppose normally they would expect to see a silver-haired fox flying the aeroplane in command.
“It took a few years before people got used to seeing a woman coming out of the flight deck and being in charge.”
She went on: “Breaking down those barriers wasn’t easy but nobody ever said it would be.
“What you need is passion about your job, determination and skill.”
Mrs Kershaw said she hoped her career would encourage women to pursue their passion.
She said: “I really, really hope that it will inspire girls to consider flying. Or anything they want to do. You can do it – I’ve proved it.”
Mrs Kershaw learned to fly aged just 19 and after initially flying small aircraft around Europe and north Africa she gained her commercial licence and began piloting executive jets.
She worked at a UK regional airline named British Island Airways before joining Virgin Atlantic when its fleet comprised only four 747s.
“I felt very proud that I was able to do it,” she said. “It’s such an iconic aeroplane and it’s what I wanted to fly. For decades it was the largest aircraft in the world and the most loved by everybody.
“That’s why I joined Virgin Atlantic. For the opportunity to fly the aeroplane and be part of the Virgin family.”
Mrs Kershaw has clocked up more than 2,000 flights and 18,000 flying hours in the flight deck of the four-engine 455-seat jet.
She said she will miss the role “enormously”, adding: “With long-haul it’s not a job, it’s a way of life, because you spend so much time away from home with crew. They become part of your extended family.”
Mrs Kershaw said she felt “slightly tearful” following the final flight. The crew decorated the aeroplane with photographs, presented her with a cake, and passengers lined up to shake hands and thank her after they were told about the milestone.
She said: “They went above and beyond anything I could possibly have imagined to give me a great time.
“In fact, if you asked me what the most memorable flight has been, it’s got to be that one. Not only because it’s my last one, but because I’ve never been looked after so well.”
Asked how she would celebrate following the long-haul flight, Mrs Kershaw said: “Bed.”
A spokeswoman from Virgin confirmed the crew had dealt with a passenger emergency during the flight.
She said: “A customer onboard the VS94 became unwell inflight.
“Our cabin crew are highly trained to provide medical assistance and so the customer was able to continue to Gatwick where the aircraft was met by an ambulance as a precautionary measure.”
The first Boeing 747 took to the skies in 1969 and revolutionised air travel by allowing airlines to fly further with more passengers, lowering the cost per seat.
A number of airlines are trying to boost the proportion of female pilots, which stands at around 4% in the UK.
Virgin Atlantic says 30% of its pilot cadets are women.
EasyJet launched an initiative in October 2015 to double its proportion of new entrant pilots who are women to 12% over two years.
After receiving more than 600 applications, it achieved the target in the first year of the scheme and is now bidding to reach 20% by 2020.