It was about 50 minutes after takeoff from Auckland on January 20 that the captain of Cathay Pacific flight CX108, carrying 145 passengers to Hong Kong, made a satellite call to the airline's nerve centre at Chek Lap Kok to say he had a problem. 'I think we've had a tail strike,' he told the operations controller. The captain appeared to have few doubts that something had gone wrong. The noise of the tail scraping the runway for about half a second on takeoff was clearly heard by three cabin crew sitting at the back of the Airbus A340-300. One of them, a senior and highly experienced flight attendant, came to the cockpit to tell the captain as soon as the plane reached its cruising altitude above 10,000 metres. The captain went to the back of the aircraft to check with the other cabin crew. Then, after discussion with his first officer, he pushed the control panel buttons that connected him to Cathay's Integrated Operations Centre (IOC) in Hong Kong - a link available on all Cathay flights which puts cockpit crew instantly in touch with a controller who can patch a senior captain and technicians into the same conversation. At that stage, the captain - a pilot in his 30s who has been with Cathay for 12 years and has one year's captaincy under his belt - wanted guidance on one key question: should he return to Auckland or land in Australia, as by that stage he was already well on his way towards the Australian coast. Guidelines on what to do in the event of a tail strike are clear: land the plane as soon as possible and check for damage, largely because the tail is close to the rear pressure bulkhead and a rupture can lead to depressurisation of the passenger cabin. Over the next 15 to 20 minutes, however, a series of conference-call-style discussions over a satellite link took place between the captain and a senior Cathay pilot along with technicians and experts more than 8,000km away. The outcome of those discussions was that the captain had a fundamental change of mind over what had happened to the plane and what he should do about it. Rather than touch down and check for damage, he decided to continue with the 12-hour flight to Hong Kong because - after taking guidance from the IOC staff in Cathay City - his final decision was that there had been no tail strike after all. It was only when the Airbus landed at Chek Lap Kok that engineers looked underneath and realised there had indeed been contact with the runway. Cathay Pacific was understandably keen to play the incident down. Both the airline and the Civil Aviation Department used the non-aviation term 'tail scrape' rather than tail strike to describe what had happened. The airline also initially insisted only one member of the cabin crew had heard the noise on takeoff. It even released a photograph to show how minor the damage was to quell speculation among pilots that the Airbus had been flown to Hong Kong with a gaping hole in its undercarriage. Last week, an internal company report by the airline's corporate safety department exonerated all those involved in the incident in almost every respect. It does feel, however, that the captain may have been swayed from his original decision by the seniority of the pilot advising him and a lack of sensitivity at the IOC to that seniority gap. The judgment that there had probably been no tail strike was made on sensible grounds. The IOC staff consulted air traffic control in Auckland to ask if staff there had seen anything on takeoff. Negative. They spoke to a ground staff worker who was clearing birds from the runway at the time to ask if he had noticed anything. Negative. They even asked him to check the runway for marks. Negative. The cockpit instruments showed nothing unusual. In the absence of a tail-strike indicator - only fitted to the longer Airbus models - there was nothing to corroborate the view of the three cabin crew that the plane had touched the tarmac on takeoff. A pilot changing his mind when better evidence is available is not a bad thing, according to an industry source familiar with the report. 'More accidents have been caused by pilots being bloody minded and not changing their minds when they have made the wrong decision in the first place,' he said. 'In general everybody did a good job. In the end it was not the optimum decision, but everybody was trying very hard to do the right thing. Nobody was being gung-ho. Nobody believed they were flying a damaged plane to Hong Kong.' He also did not think any undue pressure had been put on the pilot to change his original decision. 'If he'd said, 'Thanks for the advice but I am still not happy and I'm going to land in Brisbane', Cathay would have respected that. Had he stuck to his guns and gone to Brisbane and they found no damage, there would not have been any comeback whatsoever. It would have cost the airline money but he would have been doing it for the best reasons.' Significantly in the case of CX108, the captain not only felt initially that there had in fact been a tail strike, but, the report notes, he expressed the view later in the discussions that he still felt something had happened before making his final decision to carry on to Hong Kong. The report concluded that the captain - one of the first wave of Chinese pilots to be promoted to the rank of captain last year - may have been influenced in his final decision by the 'seniority gap' between himself and the pilot at the end of the satellite link. The corporate safety department report carries a recommendation that IOCs 'take cognisance of the experience level of the commander' in future - in other words, acknowledge that a junior captain may feel intimidated into backing down on his views by the advice of a far more experienced flier. Asked if the IOC was seen as intrusive, one Cathay pilot with more than five years' experience as a captain said: 'Not at all. We would see it as an aid to decision-making. 'It is not there to tell us what to do. It is there to help us to make up our minds about what to do. This is what happened in this case. The IOC did not tell him what to do but gave him information and he made a decision. 'As a new captain, you are always a bit nervous and you always probably put more weight on the advice a senior captain will give you. It is quite a responsibility you have taken on, flying a plane, and you don't want to screw up. It's a matter of confidence. When you start the job, whatever your age or background, you will be under-confident.' The lesson of flight CX108 is most probably that despite the giant leaps in technology and the increasing sophistication of aviation systems, gut feeling and intuition can sometimes still be a pilot's best guide. With '20-20 hindsight', the report concludes, the captain 'should have persisted with his decision to land for an inspection'. It goes on: 'Had the advice been delivered with less seniority behind it, the captain may have been more inclined to remain with his original decision.' A veteran pilot with another Hong Kong-based airline said: 'Today's new generation of pilots don't go by instinct so much. They've lived in a computer world all their lives. 'Those of us who started out before the age of IOCs occasionally get a prickly feeling at the back of the neck which says 'I'm not happy with something here'. The way the world is going, though, instinct is probably becoming less important. With the sophistication of the whole aircraft operation now, so much information is available that instinct probably is not as crucial as it used to be.' Cathay's manager of corporate communications, Rosita Ng Lai-ting, stressed that the investigation had concluded there was no direct instruction or pressure for the captain to change his initial decision. 'The report says that he elected to continue to Hong Kong, stating he believed that the aircraft possibly had not had a tail strike,' she said. 'The report highlights that the captain clearly made his own decision to continue after weighing all the information available to him, and at no time were the aircraft and passengers at risk.'