Cathay director praised low-fly stunt, before probe and sacking Pilot Ian Wilkinson flew Cathay Pacific's newest US$200 million Boeing airliner just a few metres off the ground at 515km/h literally under the nose of the company's chairman - but it would take days for the champagne to go flat on his ill-judged act. When the flight touched down in Hong Kong, there were no signs that the stunt, performed shortly after takeoff from Seattle on January 31 with Cathay chairman Christopher Pratt on the flight deck, would earn Mr Wilkinson anything other than the praise of executives and the admiration of his fellow fliers. Director of flight operations Nick Rhodes paid tribute to Mr Wilkinson in his weekly newsletter on February 1 and the respected chief pilot of Cathay's 777 fleet was pictured in the airline's in-house magazine, CX World, toasting the latest addition to the airline's fleet. According to a chronology released to the Sunday Morning Post by the airline, it was only on February 4, four days after the incident, that photographs of the fly-by began to circulate in Cathay's head office in Hong Kong and some executives became uneasy. 'Cathay's corporate safety department raised concerns about the photographs to flight operations management and it was agreed they should conduct a fact-finding investigation,' the airline said. The department - which reports to Cathay chief executive Tony Tyler - began what was described as a detailed investigation, including analysis of flight data which enabled investigators to piece together a computerised simulation of the events of January 31 and to establish the precise dynamics of the unauthorised manoeuvre. 'During this period, the crew were also interviewed as part of the investigation and were removed from flying duties,' the airline said. The appearance of video and pictures of the fly-by on the internet is said to have added to the alarm among Cathay executives as the investigation progressed. 'It made the airline look like cowboys,' one management source said. On February 18 the department's report was presented to flight operations officials. 'The pilots involved were immediately suspended from all duties and asked to attend a [disciplinary] hearing on February 19,' the airline said. The results - dismissal for Mr Wilkinson and a six-month suspension from training duties for co-pilot Ray Middleton - were communicated to the pilots two days later. Both have the right to appeal. Cathay denies that the investigation was in any way triggered by the appearance of video and pictures of the fly-by on websites including YouTube, saying its own internal investigation was by then well under way. Sources close to the investigation said Mr Pratt was unaware that the flight had not been authorised and did not complain about it. Nor did the man sitting next to him, Cathay's director of engineering, Christopher Gibbs, who is far more involved in the flying side than his chairman. The same source said that when the pictures began circulating and the company realised it had a problem, many in flight operations insisted they had done nothing wrong. 'But they were overruled because, despite anything else, not acting would be damaging to the reputation of the company,' the source said. Some pilots writing on Fragrant Harbour, a gossip website for aviators, have accused Cathay of hypocrisy for firing Mr Wilkinson when Mr Pratt and other executives were present on the flight and aware of the manoeuvre. But another senior Hong Kong-based pilot said: 'These fly-bys used to be done for a wheeze but they are dangerous because however good the pilot thinks he is, he isn't trained for it and the planes aren't designed for it. Wilkinson was showing off.' Mr Wilkinson did not respond to calls for comment yesterday.