The British boss of a leading airline was under fire last night after it was revealed he was on the flight deck of a Boeing 777 when it swooped over a runway at just 28ft in a daredevil stunt that cost the pilot his job.
Christopher Pratt CBE, chairman of Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific, was in a jump seat behind pilot Ian Wilkinson when he performed the 320mph fly-by on the plane’s maiden flight out of Seattle on January 31.
Wilkinson, 55, is one of Britain’s most senior pilots and was feted and pictured in the company’s magazine when he returned to Hong Kong.
But he was sacked after video film of the stunt in the £100million aircraft was circulated on websites including YouTube.
Mr Pratt and other VIP guests were initially thought to have been in the passenger cabin and unaware how close to the ground they came during the fly-by.
But The Mail on Sunday has learned that Mr Pratt and Cathay Pacific’s director of engineering Christopher Gibbs were both in jump seats behind the captain.
Two first officers were also standing unharnessed inside the flight deck as Wilkinson circled after take-off to descend with landing gear raised to fly 28ft above the Boeing plane-maker’s Seattle airport, the airline has admitted.
Neither Mr Pratt nor Mr Gibbs, who is also British, complained about the pilot’s manoeuvre. It was questioned only when Cathay Pacific officials saw pictures of the stunt five days later.
Wilkinson was fired from his £250,000-a-year job as 777 fleet captain with Cathay Pacific on February 21 after an internal disciplinary hearing.
His British co-pilot Ray Middleton, 47, was suspended from training duties for six months.
Shocked investigators discovered that maverick Wilkinson had twice before been involved in unauthorised fly-bys over Seattle in 777s.
He piloted one such flight in 2001 and allowed one of his fleet pilots to perform a similar stunt only last year, both while collecting new planes.
The revelations are a huge embarrassment for Mr Pratt, Cathay’s chairman since 2005 and a senior director of its British parent group, Swire.
“It makes our airline look like a bunch of cowboys,” one junior manager said.
“Not only did they fly very low over the runway in a passenger jet that isn’t made for such stunts, but they also had two pilots standing at the back of the flight deck while it happened.”
A Cathay spokeswoman said that Mr Pratt was on his first maiden flight and had no reason to believe that Wilkinson’s manoeuvre had not been officially approved.
He added: “There was no request from anyone in Cathay Pacific for the fly-by to take place. The decision was entirely that of the captain.”
She dismissed the suggestion that Wilkinson’s sacking was sparked by the images on YouTube. “The internal investigation was well under way prior to the video appearing online,” she said.
Wilkinson, who was sacked with three months’ pay, did not return calls or text messages yesterday.