Malta International Airshow

Malta International Airshow

The Malta International Airshow made a very welcome return to the European Airshow Calendar in 2021 after a three-year absence. This time the flying displays had a new location on the edge of St. Paul’s Bay towards the north of the island but there was still the traditional static display at Malta International Airport. The show attracted several very rare participants one of which was making its final public appearance before imminent retirement.

Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by the author.

Thanks to the superb efforts of the Malta Aviation Society, the Malta International Airshow has always been a highly anticipated airshow not only amongst enthusiasts, but also with the aircrews and participating air forces. The show has an enviable reputation for its good weather, warm welcome and very enthusiast audiences.

It is fair to say that the past few years have not been easy for MAS with local regulation changes and other issues impacting on the show. 2015 saw the last show held at Malta International Airport after which there was an enforced move for the flying displays to a sea front site. In 2016 and 2017 the show was held off the coast of ‘SmartCity’ – a slightly detached modern development to the south of Malta’s capital Valetta. While it had its benefits, it probably wasn’t an ideal venue considering it was well away from hotels and had limited access.

For the 2021 edition, the flying display site moved back closer to the location to the shows held between 2007 and 2009 in St Paul’s Bay. The centre of the main display site was the National Aquarium concourse on Qawra Point with the displays taking place over the sea overlooked by the ruins of Fort Campbell to the north. The fort has its own links with aviation having played an important role in the protection of RAF seaplanes sheltered in Mistral Bay which sits on the north coast of St Paul’s Bay. Close to the hotel hotspots in Qawra and Buggiba, the new site had much better transport links but even so, the area became heavily congested fpr quite some time after the displays had concluded.

The static displays remained at the same location (Apron 4) within Malta International Airport. However much has changed since 2017 with Apron 4 now undergoing considerable development with new hangars for SR Technics which have changed the backdrop considerably. The static display did not feature any of the flying display aircraft but was full of rare and interesting participants. It was however a very different experience this year due to Malta’s covid restrictions. Everyone was checked for vaccination or negative test certificates on arrival. The static display, which was open throughout the morning until early afternoon, was also a one-way system with only a set number allowed in at a time.

Italy dominated the static displays with aircraft from the Air Force, Navy and other government organisations. The air force sent three fast jets for the show with a AMX International TA-11B Ghibli from 51 Stormo and a pair of Panavia Tornado IDS from 6 Stormo. Both types are now seldom seen at airshows and are now in the twilight of their service careers.

The Italian Navy rarely participate at airshows in any guise and it had been over 15 years since their last participation at Malta.  They participated this year with a NH Industries SH-90A Caiman from 4° Gruppo Elicotteri based at Grottaglie though the aircraft was actually operating from a ship sailing in the Mediterranean at the time of the show. The SH-90A is the Italian designation from the NFH (NATO Frigate Helicopter) variant of the NH90 and conducts anti-surface shipping and anti-submarine missions from small ships.

The Guardia di Finanza have often supported the Malta Airshow and returned this year with two of their latest helicopters, the Leonardo UH-169A and PH-139A. Based on the AW169 and AW139 respectively, the GdF helicopters are operated on reconnaissance, law enforcement, rescue and homeland security missions throughout Italy. The came to Malta wearing a smart new yellow, green and black colour scheme. Further Leonardo helicopters completed the exceptional Italian contribution to the show with a Polizia di Stato UH-139C and a AW139 from Vigili del Fuoco (Italian National Fire Corps.)

Adding to the international flavour of the static display were the Royal Danish Air Force with their Canadair CL601 Challenger, a special scheme C-130H Hercules from the Belgian Air Force and a Polish Navy PZL M-28M1R Bryza maritime patrol aircraft. However, it was Luftwaffe Transall C-160D that perhaps was the most significant aircraft in the static display. As the Airbus DS A400M takes over the main transport within the Luftwaffe, the air arms C-160Ds have slowly been retired from service. At the time of the Malta Airshow just seven remained on duty. The aircraft at Malta came from Lufttransportgeschwader 63 based at Hohn and wore a special ‘Goodbye Tour’ scheme which reflected all of the various colour schemes wore by German C-160Ds from when they were delivered in 1967. Malta was the very last public appearance for the aircraft as on its return to Germany it was due to be delivered to a museum ahead of the unit finally being disbanded by the end of the year.

The Armed Forces of Malta led the home-based contribution to the static display with examples of the Sud-Aviation SA316B Alouette III, Beechcraft King Air B200 and Leonardo AW139. There were also various examples of light aircraft on show from Professional Aviation Training Academy and European Pilot Academy. However, it was the pair of de Havilland DH82a Tiger Moth and Piper L4H Grasshopper from the Malta Aviation Museum that really caught the eye as historic aircraft seldom participate as part of the airshow.

The flying display along the Qawra seafront started at 3pm and ran just past 6pm just as the sun started to set. Unfortunately, the planned appearances by the Belgian Air Force F-16AM solo display were cancelled as both the main display aircraft and spare arrived in Malta with serious technical issues and couldn’t be fixed in time for the display.

Opening the display was the traditional flypast by an AFM Alouette III with the Maltese flag flying from its winchline. It was followed in the display by a joint search and rescue role demonstration by the AFM’s King Air B200 and AW139. The King Air open the demo with a short handling demonstration which included the release of red marker dye from the rear of the aircraft which was an unusual sight and quite eye-catching against the warm blue skies. The King Air concluded its display by dropping a flare on to the water in-front to crowd and cleared the way for the AW139 to conduct its display. The helicopter started by hovering low over where the flare dropped allowing two divers to jump into the water. The helicopter then repositioned and conducted two recoveries, one using a rescue basket before picking up the last diver via the winch.

The only civilian participant in the show was Italian Luca Salvadori flying the Mudry CAP21DS “The Silver Chicken.” The Silver Chicken is in fact a long-established display act having originally been built in 1982 by Italian aerobatic champion Sergio Dallan. It is a much-modified version of the original CAP21 with much improved aerobatic performance and inspired the CAP-23x family of competition aircraft. The aircraft is now flown by Luca Salvadori and is a regular at airshows around Italy and southern Europe.

First of the afternoon’s fast jet displays came from the Turkish Air Force’s Soloturk team flying a Lockheed Martin F-16C Fighting Falcon. The team’s flamboyant display routine and the stunning colour scheme applied to the display aircraft has made them very popular on the display circuit. However, this was the team’s first appearance in the skies over Malta. Pilots Major Emre Mert and Captain Serdar Doğan performed the displays which included some spectacular flare releases as well as well as the team’s trademark rapid rolls.

The Swiss Air Force returned to Malta with both the PC-7 Team and the solo McDonnell Douglas F/A-18C Hornet demo. For Sunday’s show, the Hornet joined the PC-7 for an opening flypast before Captain Yannick ‘Fönsi’ Zanata started his solo display. Sadly, this wasn’t possible on Saturday as the sole F/A-18C brought to Malta developed a fault after a rehearsal on Friday evening. Fönsi’s display continues the ‘No Angle of Attack Limits’ theme set by previous Swiss Hornet demo with some aggressive changes in direction, spins and dramatic tight rolls. Drawn from No 17 Squadron, Fönsi has over 2,000 flying hours with 700 of those on the F/A-18C.

After cancellations earlier in the season, Malta was the PC-7 Team’s only international engagement of the 2021 season. Their long transit from Switzerland involves two stops for fuel at Practica di Mare in Italy and on Sicily before they reached Malta just as darkness fell on Thursday evening. The team’s tight display suited the location perfectly with the team’s red and white colour scheme really standing out in the clear blue skies.

The final fast jet display of the show was another Malta first, this time the French Air Force’s Dassault Rafale C solo display. Malta was one of Capitaine Jérome ‘Schuss’ Thoule’s final European displays of the 2021 season which just a handful of displays left in France before he heads east for the Dubai Airshow in November. The charismatic Rafale is an exceptional performer at airshows with an incredible roll rate and acceleration which Jérome showed to full effect.

Closing the show were the RAF Red Arrows. 2021 was the ninth visit by the team to Malta where they are always a popular addition to the show and they undoubtedly enjoyed the biggest crowds of the weekend. Malta was quite a late addition to the team’s display schedule and was the first stop on a mini-tour to the Middle East which saw the team perform at the World Expo in Dubai. The setting sun over the apartment buildings that surround St Paul’s Bay was the perfect backdrop to the team’s display and really brought out the coloured smoke. Sunday also saw the team perform a special final flypast smoking the Red and White of the Maltese flag to close out what had been a superb return for the Malta International Airshow. Hopefully with a new ‘home’ it will part of the European airshow calendar for many years to come.