Legendary Nigeria’s First Pilot, Capt Hayes’s Passion For The Cockpit

The first Nigerian pilot, Capt Bob Hayes would continue to be in the news for all the right reasons. His exploits in the field of aviation as a pilot who opened the floodgates for young Nigerians to embrace flying can never be over-emphasised.

It was an evening of celebration of the iconic airman. Left to Capt Bob Hayes, he wouldn’t want an elaborate celebration. A very modest man who inspite of his accomplishments remains very humble and unassuming. But his friends would never accept his request to have a modest celebration. He however expressed his gratitude for all the people that put the celebration together.


Capt Hayes

Last week Saturday, some of his very close friends led by Chief Anselm .K. Mohammed decided to celebrate Capt. Hayes whom many see as a mentor, their boss, friend, confidant, and truly a professional who wrote his name in gold and a man who brought pride to Nigeria.

Emotions ran high as other accomplished Nigerians such as the chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC), Prof. Itse Sagay, a former Managing Director of Nigeria Airways and a former Minister of Aviation, Air Vice Marshal Anthony Okpere (Rtd), former Minister of Aviation, Capt. Benoni Briggs, Founder of Arik Airlines, Sir  Joseph Arumemi-Ikhide among other heavyweights in the aviation industry including the compere at the event, Mr Chris Azu-Aligbe at “An Evening in honour of First Nigerian Pilot” to celebrate the iconic and legendary Capt Bob Hayes (OON) eulogized Hayes for the decades of work he put into the sector.

AVM Okpere (Rtd) said, “I knew Capt Bob Hayes when I was the Managing Director of Nigeria Airways. Before then, I had heard so much about him. Incidentally, I was a pilot too, a military pilot, and usually, when we hear about pilots, we tried to know much about them. Luckily, when I became the Managing Director of Nigeria Airways, Capt Bob Hayes was one of my role models. I relied on him a lot because when I got into Nigeria Airways.

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“He was one of the very few senior ones, very humble, straightforward, and full of integrity. Capt. Hayes was one of the very few people when they say yes it is yes, when they say no, it is no. He is very kind. One of the things that have endeared Capt Hayes to me is the fact that since we parted ways when I left Nigeria Airways and went back to the military tomorrow, there is no week that passes without Capt. Bob Hayes calling. I have to thank all those who organized this programme; it is good to be honoured when you are alive than when you are dead and they begin to sing your eulogy when you are dead but when you are alive, nobody remembers. A relationship is something we have to build upon”.

For chief Anselm Mohammed, it was a great privilege for Capt. Bob Hayes to make himself available for the honour, lamenting the failure of the Nigerian government to properly honour the legendary pilot, adding that it is proper to give Capt Hayes all the honour he deserves now that he is still alive for his immense contribution to the development of aviation in the country.

Hayes’s daughter, Elizabeth Dikko said her father just wanted to be a pilot and nothing else, declining appointments into administrative positions he was offered.

According to her, “He was always stuck to the cockpit saying flying was his passion, life. He said he is very lucky that he was able to do what he wanted to do. Not many people get to live their dream. His father wanted him to do medicine but he wanted to fly since he was a small boy in secondary and his mother said she would not talk to him again if he goes to England. He was the only son. She wanted him on the ground and he chose to follow his dream. When you follow your dream and you do what you want, you will be successful”.   

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He wasn’t interested in the money, or fame, he just wanted to fly. I feel very lucky to have him as a father; he is a pioneer in his field. I am so blessed to have him as my father. I am the first daughter. Everywhere we go even at his old age of 87, he is celebrated everywhere. I am so proud”.

Although Nigeria has not appreciated Capt Hayes, those who are grateful for his contribution to the nation’s aviation development had begun doing so.

Hayes and daughter, Elizabeth Dikko

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, Arumemi-Ikhide.

In 1955, Capt Bob Hayes 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 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.

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.

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After a 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 the first set of Nigerian pilots. They trained at the Flying School, Hamble, Southampton.

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 European pilots. They were flying the B170, B114, and B104 aircraft.

The Nigerian pilots were able to start flying the international routes eventually in 1962 when 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.

Captain Hayes flew for 40 years in control and four years on contract consulting for Nigeria Airways.

Hayes with Aviation Minister, Hadi Sirika

One of his younger pilots in Nigeria Airways who rose to become Director of Operations, Capt. Dele Ore, said, “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”.

Experts believe that this was the golden generation of pilots in the country at a time Nigerian pilots were rated some of the best in the world.

Wole Shadare