Crashed helicopter crew had a 'zero' chance of survival, Sir Richard Hayes says

When a Southern Lakes helicopter crashed into freezing cold waters near the remote Auckland Islands, south of New Zealand, the worst was feared.

A medic and two pilots had flown down for a medical evacuation near the island when things went terribly wrong.

Suddenly they were the ones needing rescue. And help came in the form of their boss, Southern Lakes chief executive Sir Richard Hayes.

A legendary chopper pilot in his own right, Sir Richard 'Hannibal' Hayes had a blunt assessment of the team's likely survival rate in the conditions.

"Zero, probably," he told The AM Show on Wednesday.

"It's pretty miraculous, it's unheard of. It's incredible that they survived this one... and to be pretty much in tact when we arrived yesterday."

The helicopter lost radio contact at 7:37pm on Monday night; Sir Richard said there was an anxious wait overnight before another chopper was sent out early the next morning.

"There was still nothing coming through and we expected the worst until we arrived on the scene."

Wreckage of the helicopter can be seen in the freezing sub-Antarctic waters.
Wreckage of the helicopter can be seen in the freezing sub-Antarctic waters. Photo credit: Newshub.

Against all odds, the three men - experienced pilot Andrew Hefford, paramedic John Lambeth and winch operator Lester Stevens - had survived.

After escaping the sinking wreckage, the trio swam to a nearby island, waiting overnight for help to come.

"It's [a sight] I won't forget for the rest of my life," Sir Richard said.

"When we saw the three figures on the beach, about a kilometre away, in their orange immersion suits - it's a feeling that all my crew, and certainly myself, on board will never forget."

They were first spotted by a crew member in the back of the helicopter at around 11am, who saw two figures on the beach at Ranui Cove in their bright orange suits.

Then the third stood up.

"They said, 'You were one of the best sounds we've ever heard in our life, right at this moment.' ... It was just music to their ears."

Sir Richard said he hasn't had a full debrief with the rescued crew yet but understands the helicopter was floating for around two minutes before it sank.

"They huddled together and sort of sat on the aircraft... this was an hour after dark."

Southern Lakes chief executive Sir Richard Hayes.
Southern Lakes chief executive Sir Richard Hayes. Photo credit: The AM Show

It took them 20 minutes to swim to shore in freezing, stormy sub-Antarctic waters.

An investigation is due to take place to find out exactly how and why the helicopter crashed - and how the trio survived.

The three men have all been checked over at Southland Hospital and are believed to have only minor injuries.

In an outcome no one expected, the trio are alive and safe, escaping what would have been a terrible tragedy and surviving to fly again.

Newshub.

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