Tens of thousands attend Warbirds over Wānaka for once-in-a-lifetime chance to see aviation history

All eyes were on the skies as Warbirds over Wānaka made its highly anticipated return on Saturday.

Tens of thousands will attend the airshow this weekend - with some pieces of Kiwi aviation history set to fly for the final time.

It's been six long years but Warbirds is well and truly back.

"The sun is shining, there's a record crowd here - we've got one of the best lineups of crowds in years," said Warbirds Over Wānaka general manager Ed Taylor.

Around 70,000 people are expected through the gates this weekend. The sold-out event left dozens scrambling for seats.

"We've had traffic backed up to town this morning, trying to get everyone into the grounds," Taylor said.

Crowds gathered in Christchurch on Saturday morning to send off the fan-favourite F-16s.

They came roaring into Wānaka a few minutes later, kicking off two days of displays.

The main attraction however was a World War II Mosquito that's been grounded for 70 years. 

"[It's taken a] 15-year restoration, thousands of man hours, $12 million to get this aircraft. And here it is flying in Wānaka," Taylor said.

It's potentially the first - and last time - to see it in action.

"That particular aircraft is so rare, and such a beautiful-looking example of form and function," aviation photographer Paul Spinogio said.

"After this airshow this Mosquito is going to be flown back to Auckland where it will be put in a container - and taken to its new home in America," Taylor added.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime chance for New Zealanders to see this aeroplane."

It's also the end of an era for a Kiwi icon. 

The Air Force's C-130 Hercules is set for retirement - and on show for potentially, the final time.

"I imagine it's an event that will bring a tear to many people's eyes - in particular those who've served on or with the aircraft," RNZAF 40 Squadron leader Bradley Scott said.

With so many people travelling to central Otago this weekend, the region's in for a financial boost.

"The last air show we held was in 2018 - the economic impact was estimated at $42 million. This one will exceed that by a lot," Taylor said.