New Zealand Spitfire ace Owen Hardy rolled back the years when he took to the skies in the iconic fighter plane for his 95th birthday.

"Every flight in a Spit is a thrill. But after 70 years, the one I had on my birthday was just a bit more exhilarating," said Hardy, who left his Auckland home to join the RAF as a teenager and flew almost 300 combat sorties in World War II.

"[It] refreshed so many memories. It was just like going back and being in the office again really, everything was so familiar," said the war hero, who last flew a Spitfire in 1947.

"You never forget [how] to ride a bicycle, you never forget to fly an aeroplane."


Hardy's epic flight, courtesy of Boultbee Flight Academy, near the English city of Chichester, coincided with the centenary celebrations of the 72 Squadron, with which he flew Spitfires in combat in Europe and North Africa.

He also flew the fighter planes with the 485 (NZ) Squadron over occupied Europe, including the Normandy beaches on D-Day, the largest seaborne invasion in history and the operation that began a liberation from Nazi control. He last year received the Legion d'Honneur, France's highest award, for services to that country in WWII.

Hardy was accompanied on his July 31 birthday flight by a pilot - the Spitfire having been rebuilt for two - who controlled the take-off and landing for the around 30-minute flight. The WWII ace, in the rear cockpit, took the controls for "about 10 to 15 minutes" once they were in the air.

Asked if he felt the years turning back, he noted "70 years were separating" his latest flight and the previous one. "It's a long way back," he said with a laugh.

Owen Hardy in his Red Arrow. Inset, at Buckingham Palace when he received the Air Force Cross award in 1953.
Owen Hardy in his Red Arrow. Inset, at Buckingham Palace when he received the Air Force Cross award in 1953.

Hardy was a model airplane enthusiast growing up in Auckland, and an avid reader of the exploits of the air aces of WWI. He studied electrical and mechanical engineering before leaving his homeland at 18 to join the RAF. He trained in Canada and the United Kingdom before going into combat - "two years of frontline stuff".

His targets were mostly German fighters - Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs.

"I never ran into anything easy ... it was aerial combat."

Hardy said "you haven't got time to think" in a dogfight. "It's all happening so quickly."

Despite flying nearly 300 sorties, Hardy, one of the last surviving NZ Spitfire pilots, was never hit from the air.

"Survival is pure luck," he said.

Hardy has been credited with shooting down at least six enemy aircraft, damaging five others and destroying one on the ground.

After the war, he returned briefly to New Zealand to study at Auckland University before rejoining the RAF in 1947, retiring as a Wing Commander in 1969.

The great-grandfather, who wrote Through My Eyes while living in Whangaparaoa, returned to the UK in 2013 to be closer to family after a 13-year spell in New Zealand.

Flying alongside Hardy for his 95th birthday Spitfire treat was fellow Auckland-born and raised RAF pilot Flight Lieutenant Emmet Cox, a member of the Red Arrows.

Cox, 39, said "it was absolutely brilliant" to have taken part in Hardy's birthday Spitfire flight.

"To fly in those aircraft anyway, they're so iconic, let alone to fly alongside such a key person in aviation history ... poignant in several ways."