By John Keast
The little yellow plane slid across the South Canterbury sky, then the nose lifted and it rolled back on its own airspace again and again.
Then the pilot, 93-year-old Bryan Cox, thrust a fist into the winter air over Rangitata Island aerodrome.
Mr Cox, of Tauranga, was at the controls of the same Tiger Moth he flew 75 years ago, an ex-RNZAF Tiger Moth, now owned by Russell Brodie at Rangitata Island aerodrome.
Mr Cox – who claims proudly to have been off the planet – flying – for more than two years – flew the Tiger Moth during elementary flying at RNZAF Harewood, now Christchurch International Airport.
He went on to fly Kittyhawks and Corsairs in combat operations against the Japanese in the Pacific, and has written three books about his experiences.
Earlier this year, Mr Cox became one of New Zealand’s oldest pilots when he was signed off for his recreational pilot’s licence at the age of 93.
Sunday’s historic flight was initiated when Mr Brodie enlisted the help of air force historian and founder of the Wings Over New Zealand Show, Dave Homewood, to identify surviving veterans who had flown his Tiger Moth during World War Two.
Mr Homewood set up a Givealittle page, and aviation fans from around New Zealand raised more than $800 to cover the costs of bringing Mr Cox to Christchurch.
Mr Cox milked cows after the war before becoming an air-traffic controller at Hamilton then Ardmore, then did his instrument rating in 1964 and became an instructor.
By the time he stopped instructing in 1993, he had racked up 21,200 hours in the air – “that’s two and a half years off the planet,” Mr Cox said. Some 18,000 of those hours were in teaching others to fly and he was the testing officer for the issue of nearly 600 private pilot’s licences.
He went up on Sunday with instructor Andrew Love – with whom he has flown a Russian Yak at Omaka – and he handed over the controls to the plane Mr Cox last flew in 1943.
When they landed, Mr Love said: “You did that. That was you doing that.”
Mr Cox beamed.
“I didn’t think I’d be alive, let alone fly this again. I felt like a bird.”
Mr Cox, wearing a wool-lined jacket and goggles for the open-air flight, joined Mr Love in checking the plane before take-off.
Then, managing a “wonky knee” Mr Cox stepped up to the plane, eased one leg in after the other, and his grin grew as Mr Brodie flicked the propeller.
When the engine kicked and revved, Mr Cox raised a thumb and the little plane taxied over the grass runway towards the alps.
Then Mr Love spun the plane, opened the throttle and the Tiger Moth rose.
Minutes later, Mr Cox was looping the plane.
He earned the praise of Mr Love, who said it was clear from the moment Mr Cox took control that he knew exactly what he was doing.
Mr Cox is the only survivor of Black Monday, the day, January 15, 1945, the RNZAF lost eight Corsairs near Rabaul.
The pilots encountered a tropical front at dusk after a rescue attempt. Most flew into the water or crashed coming in.
Mr Cox, then, had only been flying operationally for nine days.
He came in after lightning allowed him to see Green Island.
Mr Cox landed with a thump.
It was his 20th birthday and the relieved pilot was given half a mug of rum and a shot of morphia.