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2012 European Airshows : REVIEW

20th Malta International Airshow

The Malta International Airshow has been high on the ‘must get to’ airshows for Flightline UK for some time and 2012 seemed to be the most apt year for a visit. 2012 marks the 70th Anniversary of the awarding of the George Cross to the Island of Malta following the gallantry shown by the islanders during the siege by Axis powers in the Second World War. 2012 also marked the 20th Ediion of the Malta International Airshow. The annual airshow on the island has a reputation for bringing in some very unique participants from across Europe and beyond making a must attend event for many enthusiasts.

Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. Photography as credited.

Situated between Sicily and the north coast of Africa, Malta has always been a strategic position within the Mediterranean Sea for naval powers. The capital Valetta has a wonderful relaxed atmosphere and makes for a superb short break destination for tourists from across Europe. The relics of war are never too far away with great city walls and forts around the coast line.

Malta played a huge part in both world wars as a strategic naval base for both the British and the French. In the early stages of the Second World War, it was a vital base for the Royal Navy during the Mediterranean campaign. Aviation played a significant part in the defence of Islands. The islands were first defended by three Gladiators named ‘Faith’, ‘Hope’ and ‘Charity.’ Just ‘Faith’ survived but bombing destroyed her wings. However, the fuselage remained at RAF Luqa and the post war RAF preserved and refurbished the hull and it can now be found in the Maltese National War Museum.

The Gladiators were replaced on the island first by Hawker Hurricanes. The aircraft valiantly fought off air raids by both the Germans and Italians but by 1941 the Hurricane was really outclassed by the Axis fighters. The Hurricanes just about kept things even, but it was a dark time for the Malta that was really was on the brink. It was not until the arrival of more advanced Spitfires that tide changed in the allies favour.

It was therefore fitting that for this very special anniversary, the Maltese Aviation Society invited a Spitfire to attend the airshow. This was not the first time an airworthy Spitfire had flown to Malta from the UK. In 2005 the Historic Aircraft Collection mounted an impressive flight to Malta with its Spitfire Vb and Hurricane XII, both suitably painted in the markings of aircraft from the Maltese campaign. For 2012 however, it was the Old Flying Machine Company’s Supermarine Spitfire IX MH434 that made the epic flight to Malta in the capable hands of Paul Bonhomme. Getting a warbird to Malta is not a cheap undertaking, nor is it easy. Transit flights are often the biggest risk to any display aircraft. The transit from Duxford to Malta took place over three days. The final leg from Sicily to Malta involved over 90 minutes of flying over the sea! MH434 is a highly appropriate Spitfire to make the trip. It wears its original markings from 222 Squadron where it was flown by Pat Lardner-Burke who flew in the Italian campaign and the aircraft wears Italian kill markings under the cockpit. The Maltese Aviation Museum also houses a Hurricane which also wears the markings of Pat Lardner-Burke’s aircraft!

On the Friday before the airshow, there was a wonderful prelude display by Paul in Grand Harbour for some VIPs. Viewed from the Saluting Battery in Valetta and set against the wonderful architecture of Senglea, Birgu, Kalkara and Fort Ricasoli, I’ve seen few more emotive Spitfire displays and it was easy to imagine war-weary RAF Spitfires returning from operations saluting the naval ships sheltering in the harbour below.

The airshow itself took place at Malta International Airport, formally RAF Luqa. The airshow has moved location over the year including a short period over the sea away from the airport. However, for 2012 it was back to its original location of Apron 4. The airport remains open throughout with the flying displays fitting around the arrivals and departures of scheduled flights

The Royal Air Force has a long association with Luqa maintaining a presence right up to the middle of the Cold War, after Malta had become an independent state. One of the types operated by the RAF at Luqa was the English Electric Canberra in the photo reconnaissance role. One of the latest additions at Luqa airport is a preserved example of the Canberra T4 wearing the grey/green camouflage and 39 squadron markings. The static park was also dominated by the modern day Royal Air Force with two examples each of the Panavia Tornado GR4 and the Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4. Royal Air Force training was also represented with examples of the Hawk T1, Tucano T1 and King Air B200.

The Royal Navy was also present with the international debut of the Beechcraft Avenger T1 (actually based on the King Air 350.) It was actually the types second ever airshow appearance after making its public debut at the RAF Leuchars Airshow two weeks previous. The Avenger replaces the venerable BAe Jetstream T2/T3 at 750NAS based at RNAS Culdrose in the observer training role.

The Luqa based Armed Forces of Malta were also well represented in the static park. The AFM have just received their own variant of the King Air 350 in the maritime patrol role. The airshow was graced by the presence of two King Airs as the first example to be placed on static display was scrambled during Saturday’s flying on search and rescue operation. A second King Air was brought in to replace its sister aircraft later in the afternoon. AFM also operates the Aerospatiale Alouette III in support of AFM’s ground and maritime forces and an example was in static display alongside the Scottish Aviation Bulldog T1 used in the training role.

The Italian Air Force maintains a presence on Malta with a pair of Search and Rescue Agusta/Bell AB212 helicopters from the Italian Military Mission in Malta. The aircraft are manned by joint Italian and Maltese crews and one example was displayed next to the AFM aircraft.

Malta has a good deal of general aviation and several flying schools displayed their aircraft including such exotic looking types such as the Tecnam P2006T and Diamond Star. There is also a healthy microlight population with a swarm of ULMs parked near some of the flying display aircraft in their bright colours. Commercial aviation was also represented with a sleek Medavia Bombardier Dash 8 parked amongst the transport aircraft section of the static park.

With Italy so close, it is always a good support of the show. While defence cutbacks may have kept the main Air Force and Navy away, Malta did boast a rare appearance by aircraft from the Guardia di Finanza. The paramilitary border force brought two very distinctive aircraft. Standing out from the static park in its vivid green and yellow scheme was the Agusta A109N Nexus which was very well presented being very clean and highly polished. However, perhaps the most unusual looking aircraft in the static was the GdF Piaggio P166. Even its original design is an unusual twin turboprop utility aircraft with is pusher-propeller layout. However the GdF examples are used for maritime patrol with various extra bulges on the airframe, particularly on the aircraft nose. The NATO E-3 Component also participated with one of its Boeing E-3A Sentry AWACS aircraft which ran very, very popular cabin tours throughout the day with long queues of visitors waiting by the aircraft each day.

The United States was represented in the static park by a Fairchild C-26 Metro from the US Navy based in Naples, Italy. The C-26 is used for very discreet transport duties and carries no obvious national insignia. Sadly planned visits by a P-3 Orion and C-130 Hercules were cancelled at the last minute.

The stars of the static display however came from nations not often seen at western airshows. The Qatari Emiri Air Force sent one of their brand new Lockheed C-130J-30 Hercules II transports for its airshow debut. Like the E-3, it was a popular addition with visitors with the hold open for tours providing some much needed shade! The aircraft was absolutely pristine too and the crew were more than happy to talk about their transport roles.

The surprise star however was a Boeing CH-47C Chinook from the Free Libyan Air Force. Malta Airshow 2011 was marked by a ceremony held around one of two Mirage F1s that landed in Malta during the Arab Spring Uprising during the early part of 2011. Malta played a vital role supporting the allied effort to protect civilians and the island has built a very good relationship with the new Free Libya government. Sadly a planned return by the Mirages was cancelled due to pilot availability but the Chinook was a very welcome surprise late addition. Currently there are just two Chinooks airworthy in the Libyan inventory so it was quite a coup to see the aircraft away from its homeland. The crew really got into the spirit of the event opening their aircraft up for visitors. Sunday’s visitors also got a chance to see the aircraft fly as it performed a series of flypasts trailing the new Libyan flag from an under-slung rope – surely one of the airshow moments of the year!

The flying display in Malta is slightly unusual as it is held around the scheduled flights but was a varied affair. Preceding the display, one of the local Eurostar microlights performed a number of circuits representing the local flying clubs. The display proper got underway with a flypast by one of the Armed Forces of Malta’s Alouette III trailing a Maltese flag down the crowdline.

Following the Alouette were a couple of local civilian aircraft. Diamond aviation displayed its latest addition, an Extra 200 aerobatic trainer. The Extra is the first purpose built aerobatic training aircraft to be based in Malta and Diamond is naturally proud of their new addition. The Extra was followed a by series of flypasts by EuroJet Learjet 60. Eurojet are another Luqa based company offering executive charters.

Home based military assets in the flying display were represented by two helicopter displays. The AFM Alouette III returned later in the programme in a Special Forces role demonstration deploying troops via fast roping in front of the crowd and performing a rapid extraction. The second Italian Air Force AB212 also appeared in the flying display showing off its capabilities as a Search and Rescue platform.

Visiting military displays came entirely from the Royal Air Force. Sadly the Red Arrows were forced to withdraw from the show following technical problems forced the team to divert to Sardinia and require inspection of their aircraft. The RAF did however have three of the training aircraft displays in Malta. The colourful Tucano and Hawk looked amazing in the clear blue skies and gave superb displays; both Flt Lt Jon Bond and Flt Lt Phil Bird clearly enjoyed the superb conditions for their displays. They were joined by Flt Lt Ian Birchall and crew demonstrating the King Air B200 which proved very interesting to the crews of the Maltese King Airs!

However, it was two very different types of aircraft that provided the climax to the flying display. Air Malta made a welcome return to the airshow with its first Airbus A320 to receive the brand new livery that will be worn by its jets. The aircraft arrived during Saturday’s flying display straight from the paint shop in the Czech Republic as Flight KM070. The flight number was the first nod to the 70th Anniversary of the George Cross being awarded to Malta. The aircraft proved very popular amongst the local visitors which crowded the aircraft after it landed and was towed into the static park.

Saturday’s flying was closed by the OFMC Spitfire IX MH434. It was standing room only for Paul Bonhomme’s superb display in the evening sunshine which clearly meant a lot, not only to the crowd but also the volunteers of the airshow.

Sunday saw perhaps the ultimate finale salute to the George Cross 70th Anniversary celebrations. With the loss of the Red Arrows there was quite a hole in the airshow finale, but for Sunday the Air Malta Airbus A320 reprised it’s flypasts before the Spitfire solo display; it was not originally scheduled to fly on the Sunday. Following the Spitfire solo both the Airbus A320 and Spitfire joined for a formation flypast to close the event. It was another great airshow moment and made the front pages of the Maltese press the following morning!

The 2012 Malta International Airshow is one that will live long in the memory. The combination of emotive salutes to the George Cross 70th Anniversary and significant airshow firsts made the show exceptional, but for the author it was the entire experience that Malta offers that made the airshow weekend very enjoyable.

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