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2014 European Airshows : REVIEW

AirX Malta International Airshow

Situated in the Mediterranean Sea between the coasts of Siciliy and North Africa, Malta is one of the 10 smallest sovereign nations in world. However, in the airshow world it truly punches above its weight with its annual event. This year saw the 22nd edition of Malta International Airshow which came just a week after the Maltese Islands celebrated the 50th Anniversary as an independent nation. It proved to be the biggest event in the airshows history bringing together three national display teams plus solo display items in the air and a very varied and interesting static display.

Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All Photography be the Author. Video highlights by the Chris Janssens/MIAS and Air Malta.

Held at Malta International Airport, formally RAF Luqa, the Malta International Airshow is held in high regard by participants and enthusiasts alike. Not only does the show attract some of the best known display teams from throughout Europe and sometime beyond, but the show often showcases nations and aircraft simply not seen anywhere else.

For travellers from the UK, Malta is a very easy airshow to visit. Malta itself is very small and the capital, Valetta, is well connected to the airshow gate with dedicated mini-buses. Having seen the traffic build up on the approach roads during the airshow, I recommend these as they can skip the traffic jams which can become quite sizable on Malta's narrow road network!

The show is a massive event for the annual events calendar on the Maltese Islands and is well supported by local companies. Title sponsor for the show is Maltese based executive and business aviation charter firm AirX. You could fail to miss their branding this year with their central VIP area and also everyone was wearing branded baseball caps which were free on arrival at the show!

The show itself is quite compact based on an apron next to a major maintenance facility run by German airline Lufthansa. The ramp not only houses the static display participants, but also many of the flying display aircraft meaning that spectators are never far away from the action!

Central to the static display is the display by the Armed Forces of Malta (AFM). With responsibility for the large expanse of waters that surround Malta, the AFM's primary roles are border patrol and search and rescue. Flying training is conducted on Scottish Aviation Bulldog T1s donated by the Royal Air Force. They retain their classic Red, Grey and White RAF training scheme with addition of Maltese military registrations and insignia. Another aircraft in the inventory of British origins in the Britten Norman Islander of which two are in service. These utility aircraft are used both in the transport and maritime patrol roles. In recent years, the Islanders have been joined by a pair of Beechcraft King Air B200s. These have been equipped with maritime surveillance radars giving the armed force a potent patrol aircraft. Joining the fixed wing aircraft are three Aerospatiale SA316B Alouette III utility helicopters. These are used for Search and Rescue, troop transport and other varied tasks. The aircraft are all ex-Libyan Air Force aircraft, but have recently been refurbished so will remain in service for many years.

The Air Wing of the Maltese Armed Forces receives support and training from the Italian Air Force Mission in Malta as well. The mission operates the heavier Agusta-Bell AB212 for its varied tasks and brings together Italian and Maltese personnel. The mission is however soon to be withdrawn and therefore Malta has ordered two new AgustaWestland AW139 helicopters to take over from the AB212 to provide a more powerful, longer ranged aircraft for Search and Rescue plus patrol duties. The first aircraft arrived in June and a second will follow in 2015.

A second AgustaWestland AW139 on static display came from the Guardia Costiera, Italy's Coast Guard which was a very welcome and rare airshow visitor.

The Royal Air Force has particularly strong links to Malta. Not only is the international airport a former RAF base, but the RAF was heavily committed to the defence of Malta during the Second World War so its presence is always welcome at the airshow. This year saw two BAE Systems Hawk T1s from 208[R] Squadron joined by single examples of Beechcraft King Air B200 from 45[R] Squadron and a Panavia Tornado GR4 from 15[R] Squadron.

Malta saw a very strong line-up of maritime patrol aircraft. The Polish Navy sent one of their PZL M28-1R Bryza aircraft complete with a display of the various equipment the Poles use on their maritime tasks. It was particularly pleasing to see the US Navy contribute again to the show with a Lockheed P-3C Orion from VP-4 "Skinny Dragons." The aircraft and its crew were on deployment to NAS Sigonella in Sicily, but are based in Hawaii. Joining the USN P-3C was an example of from the German Navy. Though both "C" variants, the two aircraft looked quite different with the US example carrying a number of extra bulges and antennae!

Further German participation came from a pair of German Air Force Panavia Tornado IDS strike aircraft. The examples on show were in standard markings, though looked immaculate compared to the very "used" look of the RAF aircraft!

As ever, there were several civilian aircraft on static display represent many local companies and private operators. Perhaps the star of the civilian line-up was the beautiful Piaggio P166 restored by the Fenicotteri group. It has been a regular at many of the big European shows throughout the summer and is absolutely immaculate. It also makes perhaps one of the most distinctive noises when it flight!

The star of the static displays however were the aircraft from the Egyptian Air Force, a Hongdu K-8E Karakorum and Lockheed C-130H-30 Hercules. The C-130H-30 had originally been slated just to provide support to the K-8E, but at the last minute was added to the static display line-up and was opened up by its crew for cockpit tours.

The Hongdu K-8E is an advanced jet trainer and light attack aircraft jointly designed by China and Pakistan. The Chinese variants are known as JL-8s while the Pakistani and exports examples are known as the K-8. It has been quite a success on the export market serving with the air forces of Bangladesh, Bolivia, Ghana, Burma, Nambia, Pakistan, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Venezuela, Zambia and Zimbabwe as well as Egypt. The Egyptian examples are mainly assembled in Egypt from Chinese produced kits (although 40 examples were produced under licence within Egypt) and are powered by a Garett Turbofan. The name "Karakorum" given to the jet reflects the joint Chinese and Pakistani origins of the aircraft. The example at Malta was a standard Egyptian Air Force example, but it also serves with the Egyptian national aerobatic team. Saturday saw the aircraft displayed with just its external fuel tanks, but on Sunday the many Egyptian support personnel put on a display of the various ordnance loads carried by the little jet.

Malta always managed to pull in the odd surprise and this year was no different. Early visitors on the Sunday were treated to a very rare airshow appearance by the Israeli Air Force with a IAI/Gulfstream G550 Eitam Airborne Early Warning aircraft. Developed from a standard G550 by Isreal Aerospace Industries (IAI), the aircraft is heavily modified with the fitting a Conformal AEW (CAEW) system. This includes the fitting of additional bulged radomes on the nose and tail plus the equipment alongside the side of the fuselage. The aircraft performed a single flypast followed by a missed approach before landing and backtracking down the display runway and departing back to the east.

The flying display at Malta takes place during the early afternoon. One of the complications of having an aircraft at the airport is that the flying display has to fit in the many commercial arrivals and departures. This does mean the flying display often has noticeable gaps during the afternoon as the various commercial flights are fitted in around the various display teams and solo displays.

Opening the show was one of the AFM Air Wing's SA316B Alouette III's performing a flypast with the Maltese Flag flying from the winch rope.

The Italian AF Mission in Malta provide further rotary action during the display with a Search and Rescue role demonstration by another Agusta-Bell AB212. The AB212 was developed from the charismatic UH-1 Iroquios "Huey" helicopter and the aircraft shares the distinctive rotor-slap as it flies about.

The flying display featured an interesting collection of solo displays. The RAF sent the Shorts Tucano T1 solo display flown by Flt Lt Dave Kirby. The team were able to present one of their specially marked Tucano aircraft which commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the First World War.

The Czech Air Force were welcome additions to the show bringing a pair of Aero Vodochody L-159A ALCA jets - one positioned on static display while the other performed in the flying display. The ALCA solo has a new display pilot this year who certainly presents a highlight original display which features some quite unusual bunting passes and rapid rolls.

By far the most potent aircraft in the flying displays was the Swiss Air Force McDonnell Douglas F/A-18C Hornet flown by Julien "Teddy" Meister. It has been a big year for the Swiss Air Force which has been celebrating its 100th Anniversary. The focal point for those celebrations was the AIR14 Airshow held at Payerne at the beginning of September, but the Air Force's displays have had a fairly intensive display schedule taking in many of Europe's big airshows.

Malta is usually treated to one or maybe two national display teams, but for 2014 it managed to secure appearances by three of Europe's best teams. It could have been an incredible four, but the Turkish Stars were withdrawn at the last minute.

It was really good to see the Spanish Air Force team Patrulla Aguila back on the international circuit. The economic crisis in Spain has really hit the team's schedule hard in the past two years so they have not been seen at many of the international airshows. The team fly seven CASA C-101 Aviojets which wear some very distinctive national markings. Perhaps a sign of the very few airshows the team have been flying was left on the aircraft which still carry markings celebrating the country's success in the 2010 Football World Cup! While their aircraft lack the power of the Hawk or MB339, the Aguila still put on a great show with some very interesting mirror passes and solo aerobatics plus their trademark seven-ship formation landing.

Joining the Patrulla Aguila were Il Frecce Tricolori from the Italian Air Force. Malta is very much a local show for the team who put on perhaps one of the most exciting and flamboyant displays in Europe. Saturday saw the team perform their full sequence in the early evening light which was quite superb.

The final team to grace Malta's warm skies were the RAF Red Arrows. Originally schedule to only perform on the Sunday, the team were able to fit in an extra display in on the Saturday to make up for a couple of cancellations to the flying programme. Sunday however provided the team and the airshow with its main highlight. The Reds were due to close the show and conditions could not have been more perfect allowing a full show. However just prior to their display they performed a memorable flypast with one of Air Malta's Airbus A320 airliners. The A320 and team got airborne separately heading out over the sea to form up. Their route back to the show took in Grand Harbour south of Valetta before heading in over the airport for the show and two flypasts ; the second seeing the Red stream Red and White smoke in salute to Malta. There could not have been a more perfect way to close the show marking 50 Years of Maltese Independence and the 40th Anniversary of Air Malta. It was also a significant display for the Red Arrows marking the end of their 50th Display Season, but also the last display for Red 1 Sqn Ldr Jim Turner, Red 6 Flt James McMillan, Red 8 Flt Lt Martin Pert and Red 9 Flt Lt Mike Child; we wish them well with their future endeavours

The AirX Malta International Airshow 2014 was certainly the best editions of the event in recent years. Joe Ciliberti and the Malta Aviation Society volunteers brought together a small, but immensely friendly event which combined the very best in European displays together with rare participants from nations old and new. With its late season slow, and the promise of warm Mediterranean weather, Malta is always great way to end the display season!

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