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William Black, known as Bill, had lived at the Rowena Jackson Retirement Home, in Invercargill, for the last few years of his life.
He died on July 1, aged 76.
His wife, Shirley, said the family had been together for his last days.
"I just stayed with him, slept in a chair for the last four nights because we didn’t want him to pass on his own."
His health began deteriorating about 20 years ago.
In 2004 he had heart surgery and eight years ago he began having strokes. He was also diagnosed with vascular dementia.
"In the end he didn’t know. He didn’t know me, he didn’t know anything.
"That’s been pretty hard ... he loved music and I played him music. I like to think he could hear it."
She spent time looking at photographs and awards he had received, including an MBE and the Jean Batten Memorial Trophy for his contribution to New Zealand Aviation.
Director-general of conservation Lou Sanson said Mr Black was a brilliant, largely self-taught pilot, who was a pioneer in deer recovery and who saved countless lives in completing more than 500 search and rescue missions.
He also dedicated time as a volunteer firefighter for 28 years.
Mr Sanson said he was less well known for his contribution to conservation, where his flying skills played a key role in Doc’s kakapo recovery work in the 1970s.
After he had heart surgery and could no longer fly as a career, he began driving a school bus. He retired when the strokes began.
Mrs Black described him as kind, generous and safety-conscious.
"He came across sometimes as being quite gruff, quite tough. But he was a big softie."
They first met about 37 years ago, when he took her father up for a helicopter ride.
It was the second marriage for both of them and as a combined family, he had three daughters.
A funeral service will be held on July 10 at the Fiordland Community Events Centre at 1pm.