Nigeria’s first pilot, Capt. Robert Emmanuel Hayes, turns 80 today but has chosen to celebrate it quietly, only with a church service, in London, where he is currently based, to mark the day.
In 1955, he became the first Nigerian to be certified a pilot, five years before independence in 1960. Born on May 13, 1935, in Benin City, Edo State, Capt. Hayes attended St. Patrick Catholic School, Sapele, Delta State and Government College, Warri (now Government College, Ugheli) also in Delta State. He picked up interest in flying while watching the Royal Marine officers on duty in Sapele in the 50s and desired to join the Royal Air Force.
During his holiday in Benin City, Captain Hayes will always visit the Benin Aerodrome (now Benin Airport) to watch the military aircraft landing and taking off. He started reading about joining the Royal Air Force any time he visited the library.
Also during a visit to Lagos, Captain Hayes went to the Civil Aviation Department where he met with the Director of Aviation Services, Wing Commander Coleman. He told Coleman about his interest to join the Royal Air Force. At that time, Commonwealth countries’ citizens could join the Royal Air Force. However, Coleman advised him on the possibility of being a civil aviation pilot because at that time, the government already had a plan to train young Africans as pilots.
After series of interviews, three Nigerian students on scholarship, Robert Hayes, Joseph Ajakaiye and Samuel Ohioma, left the country on August 9, 1953, to Britain to train as first set of Nigerian pilots. They trained at the Flying School, Hamble, Southampton.
First Nigerian pilot at 20
In May 1955, at the age of 20 years, Capt. Hayes became the first Nigerian to get certified as a pilot with the Commercial Pilot License and returned to Nigeria in June 1955 to join the West Africa Airways Corporation, WAAC.
Between 1956 and 1960, the young Nigerian pilots in WAAC were allowed to fly as co-pilots on the local routes, along with the British and Europeans pilots. They were flying the B170, B114 and B104 aircraft.
In 1962, Robert Hayes and Rufus Orimoloye were sent for the Senior Commercial Pilot License training where they were made to fly the DC3 aircraft. While in training, they were promoted captains. When they returned home, they were asked to go for further training on F27 aircraft which the country’s airline, Nigeria Airways, had acquired.
First Nigerian pilot to fly into New York
The Nigerian pilots were able to start flying the international routes eventually in 1962 when the Nigeria Airways was formed. Captain Hayes also became the first Nigerian pilot to fly into New York and served as acting managing director of the defunct national carrier, Nigeria Airways. Many pilots at that time passed through the supervision of Captain Bob Hayes. He retired in 1990 after attaining the mandatory 35 years in service.
He was the first Nigerian pilot to attain that age in service. He worked on contract as a training captain and examiner, thereafter. Captain Hayes flew for 40 years in control and four years on contract consulting for Nigeria Airways.
One of his younger pilots in Nigeria Airways who rose to become Director of Operations, Capt. Dele Ore, had this to say of Capt Hayes: “Capt. Bob Hayes is my respected senior and a motivator. He went through a lot while fighting for us his younger pilots. He is a well respected airman. I wish him a happy birthday.’’
Experts believe that his was the golden generation of pilots in the country at a time Nigerian pilots were rated some of the best in the world. In his time, Nigeria witnessed fewer number of air incidents and accidents because the adherence of pilots at the time to standard operating procedures spelt out by both the civil aviation authority in the country and the International Civil Aviation Organisation, ICAO.
He’s a trailblazer —Aligbe
Extolling the virtues of Capt. Hayes, spokesman of the defunct Nigeria Airways, Mr. Chris Aligbe, described him as a trail-blazer who opened the floodgate for young Nigerian to embrace flying.
He said: “Capt. Hayes was a trail-blazer for the country. He was the first to fly Nigeria Airways into the U.S. He was very level headed and gave leadership. It is sad that the country could not appreciate him with one of the national honours award.”
Arik Air named Airbus after him
Although Nigeria has not appreciated Capt Hayes, those who are grateful for his contribution to the nation’s aviation development had begun doing so.
In 2008, Arik Air named one of its Airbus A340-500 aircraft after Capt. Bob Hayes. The aircraft was deployed on the Lagos-London; Lagos-Houston and Lagos-New York routes.
“We decided to honour Nigeria’s first pilot, Captain Bob Hayes by naming one of the new Airbus A340 aircraft after him in appreciation of the contributions he has made to the growth and development of the aviation industry,’’ the airline’s Managing Director then, Mr. Michael McTighe, had said.
One of greatest captains Nigeria ever had —Demuren
One of Nigeria’s greatest aviators and former Director-General of Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA, Dr. Harold Demuren, described Capt. Hayes as the greatest pilot Nigeria has ever had.
He said: “Capt. Hayes is one of the greatest captains Nigeria has ever had, a very brilliant and professional captain, a pacesetter who never breach standard operating procedures. He was a great inspiration to us who were his juniors. I wish him well as he turns 80.”
What inspired me into embracing aircraft piloting —Hayes
Fielding questions from his base in London last weekend, Capt Hayes, said in this interview:
Sir, what inspired you into embracing aircraft piloting at a time there was no nobody in Nigeria to really look up to as a pilot?
My inspiration came from articles I read in foreign magazines of pilots in the Royal Air Force. These magazines were available in our school library (Government College, Ughelli) and I was intrigued by the sense of youthful adventure I believe Pilots at that time must have been experiencing.
Being the only black man in the pool of pilots flying with British Overseas Airways Corporation, BOAC, must have been a challenge. So, what were those challenges you encountered?
Firstly, let me put the record straight. I was seconded from Nigeria Airways to BOAC along with a colleague, Captain Rufus Orimoloye, so we were two at the time. In terms of challenges, I cannot say there were any. I had very good professional relationships with the staff and pilots of BOAC and had glowing assessment reports during the period I worked with them. My memories of that period are very pleasant.
These days, people often say pilots are womanisers who hardly settle with one woman as a wife. What was it like that in your time?
I don’t know what the womanizing statistics are of Pilots vis-à-vis other professions today, but most of my colleagues in my days were in happy and stable relationships with their spouses.
What were your experience like as a pilot in the defunct Nigeria Airways, which was the national carrier?
I assume you mean what was it like as a professional Pilot working for Nigeria Airways. I flew actively for 40 years, and then continued in my capacity as a Type Rating Instructor/Examiner on the Douglas DC10 aircraft till the airline was liquidated in 2003. I will say my period working for the airline was a very successful and pleasant experience. I was a regular Line and Examiner/Training Captain and held brief administrative positions. I thank God for an incident-free flying career working with highly professional and pleasant colleagues. (I felt more at home in the cockpit and airport environment than at an office desk).
Until now in Nigeria that pilots undergo courses in business management, pilots were touted not to be good managers of men and resources but you served as acting Managing Director of Nigeria Airways at a time in your career. So how were you able to cope?
Firstly, I was acting Managing Director for a brief period at a time when the then Managing Director resigned on grounds of ill-health. I had the opportunity to apply as the substantive Managing Director but my urge for flying superseded and overshadowed the prestigious managing status as an airline executive.
I will say that I believe I coped pretty well for that brief period, surrounded by a very good management team.
Secondly, it is erroneous to say Pilots are not good managers of men and resources. The very nature of our job involves managing people and resources all the time. Pilots flying international routes, for instance, interact professionally with people of different religious groups and business organisations and enterprises. You will find that people in certain professions are best suited to running organizations directly related to their professions. Leadership for me is having the ability to surround yourself with subject matter experts in those areas where you may have deficiencies.
Yours was a golden era when Nigerian pilots were rated the best in the world, can we still say that of the present generation of pilots in the country?
Yes. Our pilots today attend highly renowned establishments and institutions where they undergo rigorous training. It is mandatory for pilots to undergo twice yearly competency checks, as well as physical and medical assessments. The Nigeria Ministry of Civil Aviation ensures very strict adherence and compliance of the rules and regulations contained in the Nigerian Civil Aviation Act.
Who are your colleagues in Nigeria Airways you still have fond memories of?
I have fond memories of all my colleagues. We were one big family. I confess I have not been in constant touch will a lot of them since the airline was disbanded but it is always a pleasure when I run into them once in a while.
Are you happy with the level of aviation development in Nigeria at present and how did you feel when the Federal Government liquidated Nigeria Airways?
From where we were when I started out in my profession, to where we are today, I will say yes. There has been a tremendous growth in passenger traffic, both locally and internationally, serviced by a proliferation of airports, with modern navigational aids. I believe there are five international airports and 23 domestic airports in the country today; we have a number of private airline operators now providing coverage to most parts of the country; Air Traffic Control Services manned by fully qualified licensed Air Traffic Controllers now exist at each of our Airport; total Radar coverage; and an improvement in the aviation laws and regulatory bodies and regulations governing the industry. Having said this, there is still a lot more than can be improved upon.
Liquidation of Nigeria Airways, was a sad day for me
With regards to the liquidation of Nigeria Airways, it was a sad day for me personally, and I am sure for a lot of my former colleagues. When you have spent your entire career working for an institution, it is sad to see it shut down with the loss of jobs (and businesses) of friends and former colleagues and associates. Should it have been closed down when it was? I believe there wasn’t much of a choice at the time. But that is a discussion for another day.
How do you think government can engender growth in the industry, especially against the backdrop that at present, no fewer than 300 pilots are said to be roaming the streets without jobs?
I have been out of the profession for a while now so I cannot verify the figures of unemployed pilots today. By growth I take it you are talking about employment opportunities for freshly qualified Nigerian pilots. With the exception of one or two airlines with well established in-house training departments, most operators would rather employ experienced qualified pilots, be they Nigerians or expatriates, than recruit newly qualified Nigerian pilots. The small domestic airlines are reluctant to commit large amount of funds dedicated to providing expensive training facilities in such airlines. I believe this is something the regulatory bodies or the Nigerian government should look into more closely.
Has government done well to have opened up the country to foreign airlines in terms of multiple entries and multiple frequencies conceded to foreign airlines? And what is the implication of this on the industry?
There are bilateral arrangements between countries; therefore there are what is termed or described as ‘Open Skies’ by virtue of these bilateral arrangements. Naturally, local operators competing against the well-established foreign operators and carriers are finding it extremely difficult to survive. The winner, of course is the Nigerian air traveller who is spoiled with choice.
There had been strident calls for establishment of a new national carrier for the country to take the place of Nigeria Airways. Do you think Nigeria needs a new national carrier?
The National Carrier concept is becoming unfashionable. Government supervised airlines are seen as inefficient, frequently being financially bailed out by government. The industry today requires aggressive competition and very efficient managerial supervision that is usually found in the privately operated airlines.
However, in some cases, especially in developing countries, the concept of a national carrier is useful for the training and provision for technical personnel such as pilots and engineers, especially to meet such needs for economic planning reasons.
In 2008, Arik Air honoured you, naming one of its Airbus A340-500 aircraft after you as the first pilot in the country. What was your immediate response when you were notified of the plan to honour you.
Naturally, I felt very honoured and privileged, especially when I worked with excellent professional colleagues. I will say that this recognition is not just a testament to me but to all hard working professionals in the industry. It is uncommon to see aircraft named after those who have worked in the aviation sector. So, yes, I feel proud and humbled.
In the last decade, the country has encountered air crashes than in your days. What went wrong, with the flurry of accidents witnessed during the period?
First and foremost, it is important to take into consideration the volume of air traffic today in the country vis a vis 15 – 20 years ago when trying to make such a comparison. Having said that, flying is still the safest means of travel, despite the unfortunate accidents that occurred in the country not too long ago.
Aviation safety is a function of education, training, regulation, monitoring, maintenance, and improvements in navigational aids. With the exception of a few airlines who have built up systems and processes to adhere to the above, private operators operating in the country still have various challenges in this regard.
It is extremely important, therefore, that the aviation regulatory authorities are uncompromising when enforcing compliance with operators in this industry. Secondly, it is also very important the navigational aids and safety procedures are regularly maintained, updated, and clearly communicated to all in line with international standards.
All aircraft accidents are fully well investigated, followed by well documented analysis of the causes and recommendations of such accidents. Such remedial actions and procedures are well publicised to avoid future occurrences.
A new government will soon assume office in the country. What agenda would you set for the government in the aviation sector?
It is most important to appoint professionals who have the prerequisite experience and vision in the Aviation Ministry and Industry.
At 80, you still sound very youthful and virile, what is the secret?
It’s the Lord’s doing and peace in my home.