Nigeria’s first ever pilot, Captain Robert Emmanuel Hayes, turned 80 Wednesday 13 May 2015 but chose to celebrate rather quietly with a church service in London, where he lives. 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 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, 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.
On a visit to Lagos, 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.
At age 20, Hayes became the first Nigerian to get certified as a commercial pilot. He 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 European 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.
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 acted as Managing Director of the defunct national carrier, the 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 worked on contract as a training captain and examiner, thereafter. Hayes flew for 40 years in control and four years on contract while consulting for Nigeria Airways. Happy birthday, Pa Hayes.