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Engineer recognised for helping bring NZ Navy's largest ship into operation

The marine engineer who oversaw the construction, trials and first operations of the largest vessel to enter the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) – HMNZS Aotearoa - has been awarded the New Zealand Distinguished Service Decoration (DSD) for his efforts.

30 December, 2023

Lieutenant Commander Louis Munden-Hooper was a pivotal figure in the development, delivery and integration of the polar-class sustainment vessel, starting with its construction in South Korea.

He showed great leadership and dedication throughout the project and was vital to the successes of the ship in its first years of service, according to his citation.

HMNZS Aotearoa was specially built for the RNZN, and at 173 metres long and displacing 26,000 tonnes, is the Navy’s largest ever ship.

HMNZS Aotearoa was commissioned in 2020 and has since deployed twice to the Indo-Pacific region, including the humanitarian relief mission to Tonga in January 2022 following a volcanic eruption and tsunami.

The ship then completed her first resupply voyage to Antarctica and took part in the United States-led exercise RIMPAC 2022. It has delivered strategic success for the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF), New Zealand Government and the people of New Zealand.

Lieutenant Commander Munden-Hooper joined the New Zealand-based project team in August 2018 as a logistics manager, then posted to South Korea as the commissioning engineering officer.

He was involved throughout the construction, trials, acceptance and capability integration of the ship, as well as dealing with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the programme.

Lieutenant Commander Munden-Hooper, who has since posted off HMNZS Aotearoa, was key to the success of HMNZS Aotearoa’s first 18 months of service.

He said he was extremely surprised to receive the DSD award, and never thought he would be the commissioning engineering officer when he was initially trying to get on the project team.

“I was very keen to be part of the project,” he said.

“I went to Korea in 2018 to scope out elements of my role and was there full-time from April 2019 until we brought the ship to New Zealand.

“It was definitely interesting times with Covid-19. When we brought the ship over in June 2020 we had to do 14 days’ quarantine at sea, and when we arrived we had to sit and wait outside the harbour for the time to count down.”

He said his time in South Korea was extremely rewarding.

“It was a huge project and even on a slow day in the shipyard there could be hundreds of people working on the ship. Work was going at an extreme pace and you had to work hard to keep track and make sure everything was happening as we expected.”

Once the ship was in New Zealand, there was the work towards achieving interim operational release of its capabilities.

“We had the Tonga mission and it was really rewarding to see the team pivot to change their focus and deliver for that.

“Then Antarctica, RIMPAC and a maintenance period in Singapore. I posted off Aotearoa in September 2022.”

Lieutenant Commander Munden-Hooper grew up in Blenheim, attended high school in Nelson and moved to Auckland to study for his engineering degree. He joined the RNZN in 2009 under a scholarship scheme.

He cut his teeth on large ships, including logistics ship HMNZS Canterbury, tanker HMNZS Endeavour and a stint with the Royal Navy’s now-decommissioned aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious.

Large ships, especially older ones, needed a work-hard ethic to keep them going, he said.

“If I’m honest, there were days in Korea when I thought, ‘how long is it going to be until I get to the bottom of this pile of work?’ But it was a great time being in Korea, building a ship and being part of the team to serve as the commissioning crew. It was hard work, but an exceptional experience.”