Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the Malta International Airshow is one of the biggest annual events on the island. Adam Duffield attended the first day of the weekend show for AeroResource.
The small island of Malta sits in the middle of the Mediterranean sea just south of Sicily, and with a population similar to that of Sheffield, may not be the first thought for people when choosing an aviation related trip abroad. However, due to its neutrality, the island often has some interesting aircraft pass through and also played a major role during the Libiyan unrest in 2011. Malta’s Luqa airport plays host to the annual airshow, organised by the Malta Aviation Society (MAS).
Whilst the early pre-show lineup looked very impressive, the show suffered from a number of major cancellations in the lead up. By far the biggest blow was the loss of the 2 Libyan Air Force Mirage F1s that had been due for the static display- the cancellation was brought about due to pilot unavailability. The RAF Tutor display also had to cancel due to the fleet wide grounding in effect at the time (caused by engine troubles) along with the BBMF Dakota which was also suffering with engine gremlins.
The static display on arrival at the show also showed signs of more cancellations. The Ramstein based USAF C-130J Hercules , US Navy P-3C Orion and German Navy Dornier 228 that had been expected had failed to arrive (3 cancelling at the last minute due to operational commitments). However, the aircraft that were on present certainly weren’t to be scoffed at. The RAF presence was immediately obvious with a number of aircraft on display. From RAF Coningsby, 3(F) Squadron brought 2 Typhoons – including the 100th Anniversary special scheme frame which looked stunning in the sun and attracted a lot of attention. Next to these was 617 (Dambusters) Squadron from RAF Lossiemouth who provided a pair of Tornado GR4s. Transiting to Malta with the respective display teams were also static Hawk and Tucano example,s and rounding off the RAF static participation was a King Air from 45(R) squadron. Nestled in amongst the RAF was one of the static highlights – a Royal Navy Avenger T.1. Based on the Beechcraft King Air 350ER, the Avenger has only recently entered full service with 750 Naval Air Squadron at RNAS Culdrose, and this airshow was only the second time the aircraft had been displayed at an airshow. A surprise on the static line up was an ex-RAF Canberra T4. The aircraft, WT483, was transferred to the local aviation museum last year and looks in much better condition now than pictures of it a few years ago when it was at Long Marston – however there still looks to be a lot of work to do.
Italy was well represented on the ground as well with 3 aircraft in the lineup. The Guardia di Finanza (Italian Finance Police) bought an example of their twin engine Piaggio P-166 and also a brightly schemed Augusta A-109. The Italian Air Forcehad a special scheme Augusta Bell 212 on display that is one of two aircraft based on the island as part of the Italian Military Mission in Malta, providing Search and Rescue cover and assistance to the Maltese forces.
Of course, being the only airshow on the island, the local forces were present. Malta only has a very small number of aircraft and almost half of their assets were in the air or on the ground during the course of the weekend. In the static park were an ex-RAF Bulldog trainer, an ex-Libyan air force Allouette III and also one of 2 recently purchased King Air 200s which are used for maritime surveillance. During the air display the static King Air was called out on a mission at short notice, however it was quickly replaced by it’s sister ship which returned to the airfield shortly afterwards.
The largest aircraft on display was the distinctive NATO E-3A. Throughout the day there were long queues as the public waited patiently to have a good look round the inside with the crew more than welcoming and willing to answer any questions. After the unfortunate cancellations, the only participation from the USA was a Fairchild C-26 from the US Navy based at NAS Naples which with its pristine white paint scheme and lack of markings looked very discrete.
The show isn’t just about military aviation and the civilian side was also well represented. The locals were out in force with the Aero Club and Island Microlight Club putting out large numbers of varied aircraft. The Malta School of Flying were also present, encouraging people to take taster sessions, whilst Maltese regional airline Medavia brought a very clean looing Dash 8, and Diamond Aviation were present to show a number of examples of their aircraft. With the show being held next to the Lufthansa Technik maintenance facility, it was also a good opportunity to get up close to a (now retired) TAM Airbus A340-500 and also one of Lufthansa’s own A319s.
However, the absolute stars of the static, and indeed the whole show, were two very different but very rare aircraft. After rumours on the Friday of a last minute cancellation, it was a pleasant surprise to arrive at the show to find a C-130J from the Qatar Emiri Air Force. One of 4 examples that the force had delivered during 2011, it’s appearance at the show was a major boost. The crew were more than happy to show people around the aircraft and seemed very proud of it and the chance they had of showing it off. The other star was also a surprise to most people. With the Libyans having cancelled the participation of the Mirage F1s, and no further news on a replacement item being sent it was amazing to see a CH-47C Chinook on the ground representing them. With only 2 examples of the type believed to be flying at the current time it was a real attraction for many of the enthusiasts – for whom it may be the only chance to ever see one.
The flying display programme also contained a mix of civilian and military aircraft. With the display taking place on the cross runway, the main airport was still open for the normal schedule of arrivals – with gaps placed in the display timings to allow minimal disruption. The show itself was opened with one of the Island Microlight Club’s aircraft performing a display that seemed to be well away from the main crowd gathering and with what appeared to be a lack of commentary for it, added to a few very confused spectators.
Following the microlight display, a patriotic Maltese flag flypast from one of the Air Force’s Allouette IIs opened the home team’s only flying display of the show. The Allouette performed a simulated Special Forces insertion with troops fast roping from the hovering helicopter before it departed to perform a number of flybys prior to returning to pick up the troops. Not to be outdone in the role demonstration stakes, the Italian Air Force also showed their search and rescue capabilities with the second of the Malta based Augusta Bell 212s performing a number of winching manoeuvres in between crowd passes with it’s distinctive sound echoing around the airfield.
Diamond Aviation – as well as providing a number of static displays – also displayed their Extra 200 with a well executed aerobatic display that kept everyone watching. Not quite living up to potential however was the Learjet 60 provided by Eurojet. Whilst obviously it was never going to be a jaw dropping display it was disappointing to only see a single pass thrown in between take off and landing especially with 5 minute gaps between the events as it repositioned behind the crowd.
The RAF had almost as much presence in the display lineup as on the ground. Unfortunately, due to technical issues the Red Arrows, whose appearance at the show adorned the majority of the advertising literature, had to divert to Sardinia which ultimately led to their cancellation from the entire show. This was a particular shame due to the planned finale which involved the Reds formatting with OFMC’s Spitfire Mk.IX . Despite this, the remaining RAF display teams of the Hawk, Tucano and King Air were as polished as ever and looked even better in the blue skies above Luqa. Their presence at the show certainly boosted the quality of the flying displays and showed the skills of the RAF very well.
As one of the main airshow sponsors, the local airline Air Malta featured heavily in both literature and around the show area. Not to be left out of the flying display they chose the Saturday to unveil their brand new livery on the first of 5 A320s that they operate. Flying direct to the show from the paint shop, it performed a number of passes showing the new scheme from every angle. On landing, it was treated to a customary water cannon salute from the airports fire service before being towed into the static park for an official ceremony and a chance for the public to get on board for a look.
The real star of the flying however was the Old Flying Machine Company’s Spitfire Mk.IX MH434. Expertly piloted by Paul Bonhomme, the first pass was a fast, low topside around the front of the crowd line which drew cheers and applause from the crowd that had been, until then, fairly reserved. With the display flown to the expected high standards, all eyes watched as the Spitfire closed the show, as part of celebrations marking 70 years since Malta was awarded the George Cross.
Throughout the flying display a continuing theme became evident. Even with allowances for the airport traffic to arrive and depart there seemed to be some large gaps in aircraft displaying with little or no commentary or explanation as to why. Obviously, cancellations played a major part in this which are outside of the organisers control and given the loss of the Red Arrows as one of the star attractions possibly made these gaps more noticeable. On the Sunday the organisers managed to arrange for the Libyan Chinook to fly along with a formation flypast of the Spitfire and Air Malta A320 which helped to fill a few timing points and credit has to be given for this quick thinking. However, the gaps in the flying really shouldn’t detract from what was a very well organised and executed airshow. Being able to get close to a Libyan Chinook and the Qatari Hercules really is something that isn’t seen at many other shows and stood out as star items. Combine these with weather conditions that are almost unheard of at any UK airshow and the small number of downsides are quickly forgotten.
With a passionate aviation society behind the running of the event, hopefully the show will continue to see another successful 20 years and continue to attract some unique and rare aircraft both on the ground and in the air.
AeroResource would like to thank the Malta Aviation Society, in particular Alan Cordina, Paul Spiteri Lucas and Braden Coleiro, for their assistance and the information provided.