* Johnny Checketts DSO, DFC, fighter pilot. Died aged 94.

For a fighter pilot, New Zealand air ace Johnny Checketts had an unusually late start to his career. By the time he began flying Spitfires in combat over Britain and France in 1941 he was almost 30, an old man compared with most fighter pilots in their early twenties.

But by the end of World War II he was a wing commander who had flown about 418 sorties and shot down 14 1/2 aircraft (one victim shared) along with four "probable" kills and damage to other German aircraft. He also took out two V1 flying bombs as they droned from France towards London and accounted for two German E boats.

Checketts himself was shot down twice and was lucky to survive both times.

A biography of Checketts by Vincent Orange, The Road to Biggin Hill, mentioned the love which the Southland motor mechanic had for motorcycles and speed in the 1930s which might have helped his reflexes and nerve.

John Milne Checketts himself suggested he had very good eyesight: "I could see an enemy aircraft at great distance and it gave me the opportunity to put myself in a position to win a victory or shoot him down".

After training in New Zealand, Checketts reached Britain in September 1941 and was attached to the Royal Air Force for the next four years, including commanding 611 Squadron and eventually becoming Squadron Leader of the 485 (New Zealand) Squadron.

An unassuming man in later life, he said in 2002 that "We were just ordinary people doing a job". But he did recall the shock of shooting down his first aircraft. He "blew the backside off" a German Focke-Wulf. The pilot did not bale out.

"It upset me quite considerably. He was somebody's boy with a mother and father," he said. "But I also thought it could easily have been me. After that I didn't let it worry me, because it was him or me."

On one of the occasions Checketts was shot down, he had to bale out over the English Channel. He was fired on by an unseen Focke-Wulf 190 while concentrating on another fighter. Suffering a leg wound, he found the Channel "bloody cold" but was picked up by a rescue launch after about an hour. "I was very lucky - I couldn't have lasted the night."

The second time he was shot down was in a dogfight involving about 20 Focke-Wulf 190s over France in 1943. He ran out of ammunition and had no chance - flames were soon belching through the cockpit of his Spitfire. Badly burned and with wounds in his arms and legs, he struggled to bale out and landed in a field. A French boy hid him deep in a wood as Germans searched the area. He was taken to a safe house to recover, eventually being moved on by Resistance workers. He reached England with 11 others after being taken off the Brittany shore by a lobster boat to a waiting Royal Navy launch. A year and a day later, following the D-Day landings, he went back with his fellow New Zealand ace Wing Commander Alan Deere to thank the villagers near Lille who saved him.

In 1990 one of the resistance fighters, Marie Van Belle, came to New Zealand to take part of a This Is Your Life television tribute to Checketts.

Back in New Zealand, Checketts was given a hero's welcome as the war came to an end. But when he told then Finance Minister Walter Nash that he hoped to stay in the Air Force, Nash said: "Well if you do, you'll have to drop a lot of that rank. Some of you fellows got quick promotion overseas and we can't afford to pay you at that rate."

Checketts snapped back: "You were willing enough to pay us to die but you're not willing to pay us to live.

"If ever I had a temptation to vote Labour you've very successfully squashed it."

Johnny Checketts had various peacetime RNZAF appointments after the war but left in 1955. He ran an aerial topdressing firm for about three years and for many years in later life showed a great interest in conservation matters.

He married Natalie Grover in 1945. They are survived by two sons and one daughter.