Following the format set in 2021, the Malta International Airshow returned this year with another eclectic mix of aircraft from across Europe and beyond. Organised by the Malta Aviation Society, the event featured static displays at Malta International Airport and flying displays off the coast of St Paul’s Bay in the North of the Island. It wasn’t all smooth running however with the second day of flying displays cancelled due to the wind and sea state.
Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by the author.
While the format of the event changed little from 2021, 2023 was a year of big change for the Malta International Airshow. Malta Aviation Society has a new president, Massimo Farrugia, who took over from Joe Ciliberti. Joe has run both MAS and the Airshow for many years as well ae being a board member of the European Airshow Council. Massimo will also join the EAC board and we wish him and MAS every success for the future. Also changing for 2023 was the flying display management team with Ian Sheeley retiring following the 2021 event. Taking over the reins for 2023 were the team from UK based R5 Air Displays Ltd led by Charles Skiera.
The format for the 2023 Airshow was much the same as in 2021 but without the pandemic protocols. The static display was back at Malta International Airport but was split between two locations. A few aircraft were parked near the original airshow site at the SR Technics Apron but the bulk of the static was based at Safi Aviation Park on the other side of the airport. While visitors parked near the SR Technics area, the two static areas were linked by a shuttle bus service. Despite fears this could get rather chaotic it was in fact a very efficient service – at least in my personal experience on the Saturday.
After a few years of uncertainty, the Airshow now enjoys some excellent support from the Maltese Government and Tourist Industry. The 2023 event was also sponsored by local oil company Enemed. That support was reflected in the event participation which just seemed that bit bigger in 2023 with several different nations taking and even some warbird participation!
The star of the static display for many enthusiasts was the Boeing TC-135W Stratolifter from the United States Air Force Air Combat Command’s 55th Wing. Just three TC-135Ws are in service and are used to train crews for RC-135 operations. As such, they lack many of the systems on the RC-135 and therefore do not have many of the antennae so characteristic of the fully operational aircraft. They do however boast the bulges and elongated nose of the RC-135. The TC-135Ws are a rare sight in Europe and this particular aircraft had crossed the Atlantic to conduct training missions with the Royal Air Force’s RC-135 unit, 51 Squadron at RAF Waddington.
Italy once again sent some star aircraft for the static display. The Italian Navy followed up their 2021 contribution with a Leonardo SH-101 Merlin while the Guardia di Finanza sent a Leonardo AW169 and an ATR P-72B Martime Patrol Aircraft. Two examples of the Leonardo AW139 came from the Guardia Costiera and Polizia Di Stato.
A number of other European nations contributed to the military line-up in the static. Two Eurofighter EF2000s came from the Luftwaffe, the Royal Netherlands Air Force sent a AS532 Cougar while the French Air Force was represented by a SOCATA TBM-700. The Irish Air Corps also made a welcome return to Malta with one of their Pilatus PC-12NG Spectre utility aircraft. The static display also boasted Eastern European participants with a Lockheed C-130E Hercules from the Polish Air Force and a Antonov An-26 from the Romanian Air Force.
The UK Armed Forces share indelible links to Malta with many units from all three services having been based on the Island at some point in their history. One such unit is 750 Naval Air Squadron from the Royal Navy which was based at Hal Far during the 1950s. It marked those links with a pair of Beechcraft Avenger T1s on static display throughout the weekend. The Armed Forces of Malta also displayed one of their Beechcraft King Air B200s in the static display.
As ever the static was bolstered by a selection of civilian aircraft from Maltese based training organisations. Joining the line-up was a Dassault Falcon 100 from Maltese based business jet firm Harmony Jets.
As in 2021 the flying displays were held over St Paul’s Bay centred on the National Aquarium in Qwara. This year however the airshow shared the weekend with the ‘Destination North Festival’ which held events on the road behind the aquarium and in Buggiba Square over the weekend. It was interesting that publicity material for the airshow made no mention of the festival and it did seem like the local authority had taken advantage of the airshow to boost its own event! The combination however made the weekend seem rather more reminiscent of the big UK seaside airshows adding live music, various cultural displays and traders to display site.
A downer to the whole weekend was the Sunday. A strong northerly wind had been forecast all week for Sunday but there was little suggestion for most of the day that the wind would prove to be an issue – particularly as it was the clearest day of the weekend! Crowds packed into Qawra all day all expecting to see a second day of flying but when the display start time approached nothing seemed to be happening. One of the biggest issues with the current airshow set-up is that the PA system only covers the small area around the Aquarium despite crowds using a much wider area. After an hour the first item, the Armed Forces of Malta formation did appear but after the SAR demo the aircraft all headed for home. It was only when people started to unexpectedly move around the Aquarium area that many twigged the flying may have been cancelled. It was a frustrating end to the airshow and those that have attended UK seafront events may have been surprised that the entire flying display would have been cancelled on such a sunny day! The likes of Bournemouth, Eastbourne and Blackpool have all enjoyed full displays in far harsher conditions. However different countries have different rules and safety must always come first.
Saturday’s display was opened by a trio of types from the Armed Forces of Malta. Making a welcome return to the flying displays was one of AFM’s Britten-Norman Islanders which led the Aérospatiale Alouette III and Leonardo AW139 for the opening flypasts. Once the Islander and Alouette had cleared the display box the AW139 then performed its Search and Rescue demonstration with a couple of divers braving the choppy waters.
One of the surprise stars of the flying was the Dassault Falcon 7X from Maltese company Skyfirst. Flown by a Dassault test pilot, the elegant business jet was put through a spirited yet elegant display routine which highlighted the aircraft’s stunning lines and quiet engine notes.
For the first time since 2012, Malta featured historic aircraft with a quartet of aircraft from the Flying Bulls. The combination of North American B-25 Mitchell, Lockheed P-38 Lightning and two Dassault Alpha Jets made an impeccable entrance to the display with an arcing turn showing off the top surfaces of the aircraft. For the next few minutes, they more than held the audience’s attention with some sublime display flying from each type. Seeing the B-25 and P-38 over Malta was particularly special as the last time such types would have been seen in Maltese skies would have been during the Second World War.
Also making their Malta debut were the Slovenian Air Force with their Pilatus PC-9M solo display. In Slovenian service the PC-9M not only fulfils the training role but also serves in the ground attack role. It was put through the most impressive aerobatic display which showcased the superb handling qualities of the PC-9 including a dramatic spin.
Heading a trio of European solo jet displays was the Polish Air Force Lockheed Martin F-16C Fighting Falcon. The Polish have been great supporters of the event with numerous static contributions and both Team Orliky and Iskry having flown at previous events. However, this was the first time they had demonstrated one of the front-line types in the Malta flying display. The Polish display does not use ‘smoke-winders’ but does use an aircraft with a very purposeful look with AMRAAM missiles on the wingtips and conformal fuel tanks over the fuselage. Further F-16 action came from the Turkish Air Force with the return of ‘Soloturk’ following their debut in 2021. It was a very different and perhaps subdued display compared to the Polish routine. However, just like the Polish display Soloturk included plenty of flare releases to add some sparkle to various figures.
The Swiss Air Force also returned to Malta with the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18C Hornet solo display flown by Captain Yannick ‘Fönsi’ Zanata. It had been hoped the Patrouille Suisse would join the F/A-18C but sadly some last-minute operational issues prevented their attendance. The 2023 season is final one for Fönsi and Malta was his last international commitment. To enhance the occasion, he also included flare releases throughout his punchy routine.
The big highlight for many locals was the return of the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team, the Red Arrows. So popular are the team in Malta that a special event was organised just to see them arrive at Malta International Airport. It sold out well ahead of the show weekend! The team were the penultimate act in the flying display and concluded their appearance by painting the Maltese colours over St Paul’s Bay.
Unusually, the show was brought to an end with the return of an Armed Forces of Malta Aérospatiale Alouette III performing the ‘Flag Flypast.’ This flypast usually opens the Malta International Airshow but was moved to the finale to mark the imminent retirement of the Alouette III from Maltese service. The three Alouette IIIs operated by the AFM initially came from Libya when the latter nation had a Military Mission on the Island. They were abandoned in semi-assembled state and without logbooks in 1980 when relations between Malta and Libya soured. However, by 1990 relations improved and the three helicopters were formally handed over to Malta. Following refurbishment, they served the AFM supporting the Search and Rescue role as well as various other tasks.
The frustrations of the Sunday and the need to brave Maltese traffic aside; the Malta International Airshow offered a fun long weekend on the Island supported by some superb participation in the air and on the ground. Special mention must go to all the volunteers from the Malta Aviation Society that work so hard to bring the event together every two years. We look forward to seeing what they manage to attract to the island in 2025.