Air Marshal Sir Kenneth Hayr

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The Independent Online

Kenneth William Hayr, air-force officer: born Auckland, New Zealand 13 April 1935; AFC 1963, and bar 1972; CBE 1976, KBE 1991; Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Operations) 1980-82; CB 1982, KCB 1988; Air Officer Commanding No 11 Group, RAF 1982-85; Commander, British Forces Cyprus and Administrator Sovereign Base Areas 1985-88; Chief of Staff, UK Air Forces and Deputy Commander-in-Chief, Strike Command 1988-89; Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (Commitments), Ministry of Defence 1989-92; married 1961 Joyce Gardner (died 1987; three sons); died Biggin Hill, Kent 2 June 2001.

Kenneth Hayr, who died at the controls of a vintage Vampire jet at Biggin Hill, was probably the most operational commander the Royal Air Force has seen since the Second World War.

Born in New Zealand in 1935, he won a cadetship to the RAF College Cranwell, and although his career thereafter was based in the UK he remained at heart a New Zealander and continued to spend six months of each year at his home on the coast north of Auckland.

The first part of his RAF career had been in the deep freeze years of the Cold War; the second ­ in total contrast ­ saw Britain involved in two wars, the first in the Falklands and the second in the Gulf. Kenneth Hayr held high command in both. As Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Operations) during the Falklands campaign, he played a key role in managing the formidable air operations in the South Atlantic. Eight years later he was Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff at the time of the outbreak of the Gulf War in 1990-91 and once again found himself at the centre of things, but this time with a difference.

The Falklands War had been a purely national contingency and Hayr, as an airman, was concerned with his own field of air operations. In the Gulf War he was at the top level of the Central Staffs in the Ministry of Defence, but this time with a tri-service responsibility in an international operation planned and conducted in concert with allies.

His character and his experience matched him to the moment. He had previously been Deputy Commander-in-Chief, RAF Strike Command, the command which now embraces all the operational roles of the Royal Air Force. Before that he had been Commander, British Forces Cyprus, and Administrator of the Sovereign Base Areas, an appointment which combined tri- service and diplomatic roles.

Yet although he excelled in these posts it was as a fighter pilot that he would be proudest to be remembered. It is a world in which he was thoroughly at home and he remained a part of it until the tragedy that ended his life. Even in staff appointments he sought to stay in flying practice, which is not easy to do in today's air force. He was never content to be a passenger, with someone else doing the flying. It only counted if he was doing the flying himself.

In his earlier days he had seen squadron service on the Hawker Hunter, the Lightning and the Phantom as well as serving with the Fighter Command Trials Unit in 1964-67. By this time he must have been one of the most highly qualified fighter pilots in the RAF, and the Personnel Staffs, with a ground job already lined-up for him, were about to declaim: "Come in Hayr, your time is up." But a last-minute twist of fate intervened and instead of heading for the Staff College, in 1970 he took command of the RAF's first squadron of the "jump-jet" Harrier, then only just coming into service.

Of this period he later wrote:

This was the most exhilarating, interesting and fantastic period of my life. It was totally new and nobody could tell us what to do because nobody knew. We were breaking new ground, both literally and figuratively. We wrote our own book.

The subsequent success story of the Harrier is testimony to the validity of the "book" which these pioneers, under Hayr's leadership, put together.

He had a strong sense of the history of aviation and the one other job which he remembered with particular affection was as Commander of the RAF's air-defence formation, No 11 Group, which had previously been Fighter Command with headquarters at Bentley Priory. He was proud to be occupying the office once held by Hugh Dowding, the Commander during the Battle of Britain.

Beside all this he was an accomplished sportsman: an excellent skier, fine tennis player, golfer and paraglider pilot. He had played polo, climbed on Everest, and been a parachutist. When he retired from the Royal Air Force as Air Marshal in 1993 he could have taken his choice from any number of highly paid jobs but he decided that above all else he wanted to keep flying.

To him that entailed more than simply being airborne; to be satisfying it had to be demanding and challenging. He bought one of the highly aerobatic and manoeuvrable Russian-built Yak 52 aircraft and shipped it to New Zealand. While he hardly needed instruction in the arts of flying, he was never one to do things by halves. He went out to Russia and placed himself under the tutelage of one of Russia's top aerobatic pilots.

His masterly flying displays spread the popularity of the Yak in New Zealand and within a couple of seasons Hayr had gathered around him and trained a full display team which, in addition to appearing at air displays, was called on to perform on national occasions like the culmination of the America's Cup yacht races off Auckland.

Hayr was a most remarkable person to know and to work with. One simply could not see how he got things done. Even when faced with seemingly insurmountable problems he somehow overcame them, yet with the minimum of fuss and without raising his voice. The secret was his absolute integrity. Once he perceived what had to be done he never wavered. He was not deterred by difficulties or by doubters. He made things happen.

The same code applied in his personal dealings, where his consideration for others was unstinting. A modest and private man, he was endowed with an old-world courtesy. Nothing was too much trouble for him.

Ian Madelin