Friends and whanau can't wait to catch up with Victoria Cross hero Willie Apiata, who was on Air New Zealand's first flight home from London after the virtual shutdown of European airspace.

Corporal Apiata, who had been serving with the Special Air Services in Afghanistan, touched down at Auckland International Airport at 5.15am yesterday.

He looked a different man to the one photographed this year after a battle in the Afghan capital, Kabul.

Gone was the bushy beard, although the long hair remained.

Childhood friend Reuben Parkinson, who lives in Tauranga, said he did not know his mate had returned. But he usually stayed a night enroute to Te Kaha.

"He's really low key when he comes home, although a couple of times my kids have dragged him along to school - it's magic for them."

A passenger on the flight said Corporal Apiata flew business class from London.

"He looked well. He said he'd come from London, he appeared to be in good spirits. Apart from the Air New Zealand staff, I don't think many people recognised him."

Other SAS troops are also understood to have been on the flight.

"You would never have guessed he was SAS. He didn't look like your usual military types."

The flight was Air New Zealand's first from London since Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted last week, sending an ash cloud across many European countries and closing airspace.

The flight, carrying 300 passengers, was one of two that arrived yesterday.

Luke Pearce, visiting his sister in New Zealand on his first trip alone, said passengers cheered as the plane landed at its Los Angeles stopover.

"Loads of people were getting very stressed out," he said.