Reluctant knight flier

RELUCTANT KNIGHT FLIER: Te Anau helicopter pilot Richard "Hannibal" Hayes and his wife, Carol.
RELUCTANT KNIGHT FLIER: Te Anau helicopter pilot Richard "Hannibal" Hayes and his wife, Carol.

Veteran helicopter pilot Richard "Hannibal" Hayes has spent his career answering calls for help. Now that service has been recognised at one of the highest levels. Cassandra Pokoney finds out what the honour means to him and why he won't be known as Sir Richard any time soon.

Richard Hayes is a humble hero.

In true southern fashion, he hates being the centre of attention, preferring to just get on with his job. Which could be why his latest honour has him slightly perturbed.

Hayes has been made a Knights Companion.

The honour carries with it the title of Sir, but Hayes, or Hannibal as he is more commonly known, is not having a bar of that.

While he has gratefully accepted his community's thanks, the title makes him uncomfortable.

In fact, when asked whether he should be called Sir Richard in this article, his response is a quick and definite no and he jokingly promises to "hunt down" the person who put his name forth for the titular honorific.

It is not the first honour he has received.

He was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2001 for his services to search and rescue operations, in 2002 was given the New Zealand Police Award, also for services to search and rescue, and in 2007 received the Federation Aeronautique Internationale Diploma for Outstanding Airmanship.

While a reluctant honouree, he concedes his efforts behind the controls of a helicopter have put him in extraordinary places and situations.

Search and rescue operations - the 2006 sinking of the Kotuku among the more notable - the filming of blockbuster movies such as the Lord of the Rings and Vertical Limit, transporting crayfish, conducting surveys, and offering support to muttonbirders, are all in a day's work for Hannibal.

His service to the community has been born out of a love for flying and a deep-seated dedication to the region he has called home since he was 23.

The 62-year-old is passionate about Fiordland; its wild, rugged and isolated beauty keeping him entranced from the moment he arrived.

"It's a fantastic place to have spent these years ... there's an incredible magnetism there."

Originally from Milton in South Otago, Hayes moved to Te Anau to work on the deer recovery programme with Sir Tim Wallis. Fiordland grabbed him from the start and, apart from flying contracts in a few other places, he has never really left.

But then again, when those "other places" have included Antarctica, with work stories most only dream about, it is easy to see why he hasn't felt the need to move.

The stories are varied and exciting. Among them are the three days spent camped on the side of a mountain 700km south of Scott Base in 2013-14.

He and his team were given the task of searching for a Twin Otter ski plane that had disappeared. The plane was found by a Hercules, crashed on the side of a mountain, and Hayes' task changed from rescue to recovery.

The mission took him further south and, at 14,000 feet, to altitudes higher than he had been before. When the weather closed in at Scott Base, the team was forced to camp on an ice shelf for three days.

But, despite being one of few helicopter pilots in New Zealand to notch up more than 30,000 flying hours, he insists these stories aren't the norm.

When asked whether he has been in a situation where he has thought his time was up, he struggles to think of an example but dismisses a suggestion that perhaps he is simply luckier than most.

Luck doesn't come into it, he insists. Meticulous planning is the key and safety is paramount - not only his own, but that of his crew and those they are rescuing.

Every flight is planned to precision, and the helicopter checked and checked again.

His team at Southern Lakes Helicopters works the same way.

"Every job is well planned with professionals, not just myself, to make that final decision [whether to fly] ... It's always very well planned.

"You've got to respect the weather, you've got to respect the conditions."

In the early 1990s he was instrumental, with fellow helicopter pilot Graeme Gale, in pioneering night-vision goggles, an innovation that, he says, was a "quantum leap forward" for search and rescue efforts.

The goggles enhance artificial light up to 6000 times, and Hayes implores trampers, hunters and tourists to make use of the technology by carrying a form of artificial light such as a torch, mobile phone or camera.

The technology is constantly improving, something that thrills Hayes, who knows better than to take his machines for granted.

He also knows better than to take his ground support for granted and credits wife Carol with keeping his operation running.

For years she has worked tirelessly supporting the crew on the ground. "At night Carol does 95 per cent of the flight following and is up all night.

"The job would be very, very difficult without the support of Carol and the family."

He concedes his career has been hard on his family - he has missed numerous sporting games and other activities his four children have been involved in.

Carol remembers an occasion when, walking into a concert their youngest was performing in, the fire siren went off.

"All of a sudden you look around ... all these key people, the fire guys, Richard as the helicopter pilot, the local doctor ... you see them all drifting out. That would have happened on many occasions."

But he is supremely grateful for the support of his family.

He is also grateful for the team he has backing him at Southern Lakes, as well as the people he regularly works with on rescues and medivacs.

"I've got a hell of a staff behind me. It's how we have developed it over the years to get it to where we are."

Not bad for the young man who, in 1975, started his flying careernot thinking he would be still doing what he loved so many years later.

And being recognised at the highest levels for it.

"I am very humbled by this. You never ever think for all through your career that this ever happens. It just doesn't come into the equation. It's gratefully accepted but I'm very humbled by it."

The Southland Times