'One of the best days of my life'

''We went down there expecting the worst and came away with the best.''

So said rescue helicopter legend Sir Richard Hayes after discovering three colleagues alive and standing on a beach in the subantarctic islands, more than 12 hours after a crash into the icy Southern Ocean most feared would yield no survivors.

An elated Sir Richard was speaking to the Otago Daily Times on a day which began as his darkest, but ended as one of his best.

''It was probably one of the best days of my life,'' he said.

''It was absolutely such a great sight to see three guys standing on this rocky, bouldery beach in the subantarctic islands.''

Standing on that windswept shore in their orange immersion suits yesterday morning were Southern Lakes Helicopters pilot Andrew Hefford, winch operator Lester Stevens and St John paramedic John Lambeth.

More than 12 hours earlier, they were racing south on a routine medical evacuation from a fishing vessel when their helicopter crashed in the sea near the Auckland Islands, 465km south of New Zealand, for reasons as yet unknown.

Sir Richard credited helicopter underwater escape training for helping the trio escape from the downed craft and make their way to shore, despite Mr Stevens being knocked unconscious and Mr Lambeth suffering a limb injury.

His comrades managed to pull Mr Stevens from the wreckage before helping him ashore as they swam through the icy water.

Communication was lost with the helicopter about 7.40pm on Monday.

When a fishing boat found the wreckage floating in the ocean yesterday morning, most feared the worst, as three helicopters, several fishing vessels and a Royal New Zealand Air Force Orion kept up the search.

Shortly before noon, crew on Sir Richard's helicopter saw the three men standing on the beach, to everyone's elation.

''To go there and get a result of three people standing on the beach in immersion suits ... just outstanding,'' Sir Richard said.

They were airlifted to Invercargill aboard two Otago Regional Rescue helicopters and walked to Southland Hospital unaided.

Helicopters Otago chief pilot Graeme Gale flew one of three helicopters involved in the rescue mission.

Mr Gale said rescuers had been ''bloody pleased'' to see the men walking on the beach.

''They were walking wounded, with a few injuries, but nothing life-threatening,'' he said.

He described the crew as very experienced, well-equipped and carrying good gear.

The men were particularly happy to be wearing cold water immersion suits, which had helped them survive the crash into the sea followed by a ''short swim'' to land, he said.

''Unfortunately, they've had a bit of an accident that's caused them to get a lift home.''

Search conditions had been foggy overnight, but cleared to warm sunshine in the morning, helping rescuers.

Mr Gale said it was an outcome few had expected.

''I think there'll be a couple of drinks had tonight.''

Southern Lakes Helicopters operations manager Lloyd Matheson said after an agonising, sleepless night of waiting for news, staff let out an ecstatic roar when Sir Richard told them he had found the men on a beach.

''We were always hopeful.''

Mr Matheson said the helicopter had crashed about 2km from shore.

He assumed the trio had swum to shore there as there was no sign of the life-raft the helicopter was carrying.

There was no explanation yet as to what had happened, he said.

A crewman on Sir Richard's helicopter saw the trio's orange immersion suits after they followed the downed helicopter's final approach path to the island.

''He was just trying to replicate what the aircraft was doing on the turn on a northerly approach to Enderby,'' Mr Matheson said.

The lack of communication with the helicopter in the moments before the crash remained a mystery, he said.

There were four means of communication on board the helicopter but ''everything stopped'' either just before or on impact.

''That last two minutes - we agonised over why that had happened.''

There were many possibilities, including a bird strike or an electrical fault, he said.

The helicopter had left Te Anau on Monday and refuelled on Stewart Island before continuing south. The last transmission was about two minutes before the craft was due to land.

All three men were highly trained and highly experienced, Mr Matheson said.

Mr Stevens had worked for the company for more than 20 years, and Mr Hefford had ''vast experience'' in New Zealand and overseas, including the past three years in Antarctica.

Mr Matheson said he might owe his good mate Lester a beer as he was supposed to be on yesterday's medevac mission. Due to a funeral, he swapped places at the last minute.

''I definitely have some mixed feelings about the whole situation. I was meant to be there but asked my mate to stand in.'' 

-Additionally reported by NZME

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