One of the three Auckland Islands helicopter crash survivors has spoken of being knocked unconscious and swimming in the dark through freezing waters to safety.

Winchman Lester Stevens was en route to the subantarctic islands, 450km south of New Zealand, with pilot Andrew Hefford and paramedic John Lambeth on Monday evening when their helicopter crashed into the icy southern waters.

They planned to spend a night on Enderby Island, before performing a medical evacuation from a fishing vessel the following morning. Two minutes from arrival, communications ceased.

Stevens was knocked unconscious when the aircraft hit the water, and the other two men had to extract him from the wreckage.

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The men swam 20 minutes in the dark to a beach, where they were rescued the following morning by two helicopter crews, including one piloted by their boss Sir Richard "Hannibal" Hayes.

Stevens told Stuff he could not recall much about the crash, until he woke up in the sea. He could not recall the swim either, just Lambeth and Hefford dragging him out of the water.

Southern Lakes Helicopters pilot and CEO Sir Richard Hayes on Enderby Island with others involved in the Auckland Islands rescue. Photo / Southern Lakes Helicopters
Southern Lakes Helicopters pilot and CEO Sir Richard Hayes on Enderby Island with others involved in the Auckland Islands rescue. Photo / Southern Lakes Helicopters

Once on land survival instinct kicked in. They built a hut, and waited to be rescued.

"We just did what we did and survived," he told Stuff.

Stevens said it was his first crash in 25 years of flying and he had no fears about returning to the skies.

The trio had been taken to Southland Hospital in Invercargill for treatment. Stevens and Lambeth had been released by Wednesday morning.

Hayes, chief executive of Southern Lakes Helicopters, was on one of two rescue helicopters that set off yesterday morning to search for the missing men.

He told Newstalk ZB they were "expecting the worst".

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"It was the worst day, worst night - longest night. The whole trip to the Auckland Islands yesterday was virtually flown in silence.

"We were expecting the worst, and that turned 180 degrees and we were absolutely elated to see three orange-clad figures on the beach."

The men were in their cold water immersion suits, typically designed to maintain a comfortable body temperature in conditions as low as -30C, and were buoyant like a lifejacket.

They had made it to the closest shore despite the darkness and with no lights on the island to guide their way. It was a cool 10C at the time they were believed to be in the water.

Winchman Lester Stevens has spoken of their dramatic survival. Photo / Otago Daily Times
Winchman Lester Stevens has spoken of their dramatic survival. Photo / Otago Daily Times

It was not known how far they swam, but they were picked up at Ranui Cove on the main island, between 2 and 3km from the helicopter wreckage.

Hayes, who has over 40 years' experience as a helicopter pilot and has flown over 30,000 hours, said it was a particularly emotional operation given those involved.

"We have done hundreds of rescues over the years, but when it is close to home, it really is hard, and yesterday was the hardest.

"These are all key personnel that have worked with us for years, and the thought that we had lost them was a pretty hard pill to swallow, but it was certainly a great trip home."

Hayes said it was about a 3.5 hour flight from Invercargill, but they did not spend much time down there as they spotted the crew on first approach.

"On first approach we could see them on the beach, one of my crewmen spotted them.

"They were wet and cold, had spent a night out in the bush. A cold front came through, with wet and squally conditions. They were glad to have a cup of coffee and a bite to eat."

Stevens and Hefford were briefly knocked out on impact.

Hayes said their survival came down to training and instinct.

"Lester was knocked out on impact and had no idea how he extracted himself from the aircraft, maybe it goes back to the HUET [Helicopter Underwater Escape Training] required to do any oceanic flights.

"He came to in the water, and everyone got out as the helicopter was still floating, leaving them to a 20 minute swim to the shore.

"I believe the training, any training be it flying or emergency, does kick in and in the case of Lester and even Andrew, who was knocked out for a short period, survival instinct and training kicks in.

"It is just great to have them back home."