ON TUESDAY, it will be a year since Cathay Pacific sacked 49 pilots via courier-delivered letters in an initiative the airline's press release titled a 'Move To Resolve Pilots' Pay Dispute'. The pilots had just introduced a work-to-rule campaign over issues including rostering, pay and benefits - and the terminations represented Cathay's counterpunch. A short time later, Cathay's chairman, James Hughes-Hallett, pronounced the dispute effectively over and said the pilots would soon be forgotten. Instead, the '49ers' have maintained their fight, supported by colleagues who continue to pay thousands of dollars a month to keep alive their hopes of returning to work, pursuing lawsuits and paying mortgages. Cathay's so-called solution to the original dispute is now the biggest obstacle to its resolution; union members want to negotiate an industrial deal which includes jobs for the 49ers. When asked how much longer the situation can go on, the union says the 49ers will have its support as long as it takes. However, as membership numbers shrink, some pilots are starting to question this stance. Last week, 21 pilots lodged complaints with the Labour Tribunal, claiming they were sacked 'unreasonably and as a result of their union membership and union activity'. However, on Thursday the tribunal ruled the issue was already before the High Court. Lawsuits have been lodged against Cathay on behalf of the 49ers in Hong Kong, Britain, the United States and Australia but the cases have not yet been heard. It's difficult for the 49ers to move on and get another job in the industry. Most major airlines have a policy that new pilots must start on the bottom rung of the career ladder, so even the most experienced would have to begin the slow climb to captain from scratch - if they manage to find a job with another airline. The alternative is to work towards a return to the skies with Cathay. Here are the stories of five of the men caught in the middle. FOR CANADIAN Ken Carver, 44, one of the worst moments of the worst year of his life was breaking the news to his mother, who'd seen him graduate from boyhood model planes to wearing captain's stripes. Just before the courier letter arrived, he'd been on a visit to Canada, taking her a gift she'd long wanted, a studio portrait of her son in his Cathay uniform. 'To her, that was like I had given her the Taj Mahal,' Carver recalls. 'She was so appreciative. She was going to hang it up in her special corner of the house. When I got back to Hong Kong and called them, she said, 'I have to take the picture down. I can't look at it right now.' ' A month ago, Carver, his wife Angela Hoeden and their 10-year-old son Alexander moved to Phuket, Thailand, from their previous home in Singapore, recognising the current 'holding pattern' could continue long enough for the low cost of living to outweigh the cost of the move. He is checking out potential business opportunities, just in case, but says he's not planning to give up on Cathay. 'I do actually believe Cathay Pacific is a good airline,' he says. 'There isn't one day I wake up and I'm not thinking about it. Some days I wake up and look up at the sky and say, 'Can someone give me an answer here?' I spent 12 years working for them. I'm an extension of that company. It's a question of pride as well.' Carver's proud flying record includes overcoming a potentially catastrophic problem to land the Spirit of Hong Kong jet in front of a crowd of VIPs. The plane had just been painted with a design submitted by a local child after a worldwide competition. Instruments blocked by residue from adhesive tape used in the paint job had left him flying through cloud with three sets of conflicting readings as an alarm warned that the plane was about to stall. Two planes have crashed in comparable situations. Not that Cathay ever cast doubt on the 49ers' flying skills, instead declaring the group were those who, the company said at the time, 'cannot be relied upon to act in the best interests of the company in the future'. THE COMPANY'S position a year later is that Cathay has moved on and, in the words of director of corporate development, Tony Tyler, it is 'unfortunate' if the sacked pilots have not. 'We did warn the union both publicly and privately that if they started a fight, people would get hurt,' Tyler says. He says the sackings were an action taken in the best interests of the company. He cannot imagine circumstances under which the 49ers would be taken back. 'We will continue to manage and grow the business, with or without the union's co-operation ... this is a situation we can live with,' Tyler says, as Cathay continues to refuse to meet the pilots' union. FOR FORMER military pilot, Canadian First Officer Mike Palmer, 37, the axe fell when he was three-quarters of the way up Cathay's seniority list in an era of expansion. He had expectations. He had ambitions. He had ego. And he'd just completed a $500,000 renovation on his apartment in Discovery Bay. His work record is clean, he says firmly, and he's working towards getting his job back. Most recently, he's been helping the pilots' union, the Aircrew Officers' Association, prepare for a union meeting and 'Unity Party' to mark the anniversary of the sackings. He's also been helping a friend who has set up a new business. 'It's not impossible. I'm not dreaming,' he says of his hopes of a return to Cathay. 'I have faith because I believe that management believe they need to resolve this. The status quo will not stand indefinitely.' However, 'contract compliance' industrial action - under which pilots refuse to work if called up on their days off - is not affecting the airline's punctuality. There are also no shortages of candidates for new jobs at Cathay, although an international union 'recruitment ban' has deterred some from applying. After a year on the ground, Palmer misses the challenge of flying: 'Once you start, you can't stop. You can't push the chair back from the desk. When situations are thrown at you, you must deal with them. Nobody else will. You must.' But, in the year gone by, he's lost more than just a job. Friend and fellow 49er, Greg England, fell to his death aged 31 from his Wan Chai flat in unclear circumstances early this year. 'When we were all fired, it was the only thing for me, there was nothing else to think about or worry about,' Palmer says. 'But in fact there is. There's a lot more to life than just this dispute.' BRITISH CAPTAIN Chris Kelly, 55, can laugh now when he talks about the day, after two decades of flying for Cathay, his contract was terminated - by fax. The Britain-based pilot came home to find his wife, who discovered the fax, had laid on champagne. 'She said, 'You've just been fired. Welcome to retirement.'' Kelly had been due to retire nine months later, but the sacking left a bad taste in his mouth and means he is no longer eligible for retirement travel benefits. He'd like to fly again, to finish his career on a high. But in some ways the news came as a relief. His flying roster left him tired and his job satisfaction had declined over the years in the face of managers he says 'really didn't want to know' about his suggestions. Although Cathay denies sacking pilots on the basis of union membership, all but one of the total of 53 pilots who lost their jobs last July were members. The one exception shared the same name as a union pilot. Four of the union's seven negotiators were among those sacked. Kelly says he was never a leading union man; he never even asked a question in a meeting. But he admits he was not a 'yes man'. 'Is that a reason to fire you? I wouldn't have thought so,' he says. Kelly, who like several 49ers declines financial assistance from the union, says he hasn't been letting the situation get him down. He's been supervising renovations in his cottage in Surrey, England, riding his motorbike, working on the British-based pilots' legal challenge and doing some travelling. One trip he couldn't make was to the funeral of friend and widely respected Cathay pilot, Mike Miller, who died in April, aged 44. Kelly's wife, a retired Cathay flight attendant, had obtained air tickets through her retirement perks - but the day of their departure the company informed him that, as a 49er, he wasn't eligible for travel benefits, even as a spouse. FIRST OFFICER Cam Blakeney-Williams, 31, was with Cathay for more than six years before he found that his office access pass had unexpectedly stopped working. He is young enough to start again at another airline - if he can find one that will have him - but says he'd rather go back to Cathay. Aviation is a small world, he says, and there are plenty of pilots looking for work who do not bear the stigma of being a 49er. Only a handful of the group have found alternative flying work outside Hong Kong in the past 12 months. Some of his applications this year have disappeared into a void and others come back with the response that he is 'administratively unsuitable'. Being grounded for a year puts him out of contention for some contract jobs which demand more recent experience. To get the job with Cathay, the New Zealander took a flying course at university and then worked without pay for more than a year, followed by a series of low-paying casual jobs for years after that, in order to gain experience. In the past year, Blakeney-Williams has spent time helping the union with video production. He's also had a rocky time with his girlfriend, a Cathay flight attendant who is trying to overcome his reluctance to attend counselling together. Without the union's support, he would have been forced to leave his Discovery Bay home, his life in Hong Kong and his friends. To save money, he has given up membership of the residents' club, eats at home more often and has cancelled his mobile phone. He thinks union members will keep shelling out four per cent of their salaries to support the 49ers and cover other costs associated with the dispute. They pay not just to support the 49ers, but to protect their own interests, he says, because any one of them might be the next to be fired without access to the normal discipline appeal process. The company told the 49ers the appeal process did not apply because their terminations were 'not as a result of any particular offence'. THIS YEAR HAS BEEN frantic for Canadian couple, Steve and Darlene Bulteel. The first officer is a union negotiator and its director of communications, who has been unemployed in name only. His wife, who was pregnant with Jaden, now five months, when Steve, 34, was sacked, is heavily involved in the union's Family Awareness Network, which operates a pilot drop-in centre in Discovery Bay, near their home. Months passed before the Bulteels started taking weekends off from dealing with the dispute. The phone rang off the hook with both requests for help and offers of it, including offers to pay their mortgage. Bulteel says frustration was one reason why he took on union leadership roles: 'I would make suggestions to save money or improve things and they [the company] would say, 'Oh, write that down' and nothing would come of it.' He's known within Cathay as an academic, having published flying manuals for two types of aircraft, which are owned by about half of the airline's pilots. Bulteel too wants his job back. 'It's not about the money but standing up for what's right and fair. I don't want to beat management but to return to what's fair.' While some people say the union has achieved nothing after a year of industrial action, Bulteel disagrees. Almost a year ago, the company declared the dispute effectively over. 'It's effectively still going,' Bulteel counters. Two candidates will challenge union president Nigel Demery in an election this month, standing on conciliatory platforms - but even they have announced no plans to cut off 49er support. Not that there isn't grumbling about the soaring union dues. Bulteel says accepting the union money goes against the grain, and 49ers are careful not to appear wasteful. Almost 160 pilots have quit the union since last summer and 25 have been expelled for failing to pay their fees. The union currently has 1,167 members, about two-thirds of all Cathay pilots, who collectively provide 49ers with assistance equivalent to a maximum of half their previous salaries on a needs basis. For the Bulteels, the death of Greg England marked the lowest point of the past year. It will, as the poster on the drop-in centre wall says, never be forgotten. The pilot's father, Stephen, told them he had stared at his son's picture during the funeral in St John's Cathedral, almost hearing his son's voice saying: 'Tough it out, dad, keep it in.' Stephen England did not turn around from his place in the front pew, for fear he would see only a handful of mourners. It was only as he left the church and walked past the hundreds of uniformed pilots packing every pew that he broke down. 'When all this gets sorted out, that's one thing that will always be ...' says Darlene Bulteel, unable to finish the sentence.