A drunk plane passenger's behaviour was so bad it caused a pilot to divert a flight for the first time in his 20-year career.

Uche Ezedinma, who was travelling with his mother, had to be physically restrained after repeatedly abusing members of the cabin crew on the Virgin Atlantic flight from Gatwick to St Lucia on January 28 last year.

As a result he was jailed for 14 months, police said.

He spat at a flight attendant and threatened others, punched overhead lockers, smoked in the toilets and continued to be verbally and physically aggressive throughout the journey.

The Airbus A330 was diverted to the Azores before it was halfway through its journey, so the 36-year-old, of Elgin Road, Croydon, could be removed from the plane, according to Sussex Police.

A force spokesman said: "(It was) a decision not taken lightly by the captain - it was the first time in 20 years as a Virgin pilot he had to divert a flight due to passenger behaviour."

The remaining 200-plus passengers were forced to leave the plane while it refuelled because of the diversion.

Gatwick police officers investigated after an Interpol inquiry found Portuguese authorities allowed Ezedinma to leave after two hours of paperwork.

He was subsequently charged with, and admitted, being drunk in an aircraft and negligently acting in a manner likely to endanger an aircraft or any person inside.

Detective Sergeant Patrick Sweeney said his behaviour was "completely unacceptable".

A Virgin Atlantic spokesman said the safety of customers and crew was a priority, adding: "We will not tolerate disruptive or abusive behaviour on board any Virgin Atlantic aircraft.

"We continue to work closely with the relevant authorities and will always seek prosecution for those individuals that cause disruption to our services through unacceptable behaviour."