Dave Eade samples the end-of-season sun in the Med. Pictures by the author and Roger Cook/Pynelea Photo Bureau where credited.
The weekend of 27/28 September 2003 saw the staging of the 11th Maltese International Airshow. Organised by the Maltese Aviation Society, the event is held at Luqa Airport, Malta's only surviving airfield. The flying therefore has to be threaded in with the never-ending stream of airliners whose job it is to ensure that Malta's tourist trade is well fed. Luqa has two runways, set at right-angles so it becomes possible to segregate one demand for airspace from the other.
The non-commercial area has a pan large enough to hold a reasonable static display and it was for these arrivals that your scribe found himself outside, on the fence on Friday morning with, it must be said, the great company of a surprisingly large number of aircraft enthusiasts. It is difficult to accept that the sight of the inbound KC-135R from Mildenhall should send these spotters into raptures when it is such a common sight to those of us from East Anglia. So it was though, and this enthusiasm extended to friendliness toward us (unlike some UK airfields I could name) and interest in our background. Our access to the pan was not available until 16:00 so we had plenty of time to discuss both their history and ours, learning a lot about Maltese aviation in the process. Malta's air arm is familiar to most in that it consists of ex-RAF Bulldogs T1s, Islanders, Allouette IIIs and a Bell 47. Examples of all were incorporated into an excellent static display with some surprises to boot!
By 16:00 the pan was full and available to photographers. To those, like me, whose Italian list is quite short, this was Utopia. There are very strong links between Italy and Malta, which some might find surprising, the memories of the Second World War being long cast aside. So it was that the pan contained a list of Italian military airframes to die for - pride of place goes to the rotary section and I have no shame in admitting that I waxed lyrical over four SF260s from 70 Stormo - my first from the AMI. On the 'hard' side were a Tornado from 156 Gruppo, MB-339A and GT from 61 Stormo, accompanied by the 32 Stormo AMX. Also represented were the Italian Army with Dornier 228, Agusta A109 and Mangusta, the Navy with two SH-3D Sea Kings, the Police with AB-212 and the Guardia Finanza with AB-412. Add to these the Avanti from 14 Stormo and a couple of civil Metros and you have quite a presence.
Italy today maintains a presence on Malta with Air Force AB-212 helicopters that are responsible for SAR on and around the island. Featured on the ground and in the air, these are the sharp-end of a large Maltese Lire (surely Euro? - Ed) investment in the country.
The USAF got everyone's attention by sending the first B-52 to set foot on Malta (which was the highest serial and therefore probably the last one built) and its air arms were represented by the aforementioned KC-135R, two Lakenheath F-15Cs and a very welcome US Navy Metro (C-26D) from the facility in Naples. Germany sent both Air Force and Navy Tornados, the stallion-finned Phantom F-4F from JbG-31, Transall and an all too rare Atlantic from MFG-3. The Transall became highly travelled in joining the flying pan for Saturday's show and returning to static for Sunday.
Nos II(AC) and 31 Squadron Tornados were the only UK static and bringing up the rear for the big boys was the Belgian ERJ-135 and NATO E-3C.
Opening the flying both days was the Canadair CL-415 fire-bomber. The existence of a large replenishment lake in the locale enabled several runs to be made, all of which were kept safely away from the crowd (which has not always been the case in the past, apparently). A showstopper certainly, the pilot seemed almost reluctant to stop once the exercise had started. A SAR demo by the AB212 was placed nicely in front of the crowd and the fact that most of the fliers chose to taxi past the spectators on take-off or landing gave identity to the guy-in-the-seat for once.
Of the fast-jets, the display of the day would be hard to award. The Belgian F-16AM and French Mirage 2000C are hard to separate. Although somewhat subdued to his Yeovilton efforts the week before, the brilliantly coloured Tornado from MFG-2 was stunning in all ways. Best colour-scheme flying award would certainly go to Jaguar E37 from EC01-007, being lead ship of the 'Raffin Mike' Jaguar Duo. Easily dismissed, this typically French display wins prizes for difficulty (to say nothing of close flying). RAF Jaguar, Hawk and Tucano displayed with their usual aplomb but the lack of a display team was beginning to become noticeable. The feeling of "if only" extended to the Minot-based B-52H 61-0040 which, as a flying finale, could have stolen this show. It was parked at runway threshold and would have been so 'easy' to include.
As it was the finale fell to the unlikely auspices of 16(R) Squadron Jaguars who, with six on the pan plus display bird and spare, certainly had the majority vote. Launching four, the Jaguars attacked Luqa from all angles with the suitable addition of pyrotechnics. A good crowd both days seemed to enjoy the whole episode although it was noticeable that the commentator was, throughout, talking as if to an audience of little knowledge - explaining that vapour on the fast jets and flame in the exhaust was nothing to worry about - nothing was wrong!
So it was that a few stalwart photographers manned the static pan again on Monday morning for departures. We were warned to be careful, be obvious and left alone to do our thing on a live pan - something that would have been impossible at RIAT. The sound of shutters competing at times with the noise of engines, two hours were spent wishing farewell to the contents of the static pan. It was also a trip back in time for the older members of the party - missing for so many years now is the farewell fly-by by the static aircraft on departure, but the well-known Top-Gun request was obviously changed to "Permission to buzz the photographers". One after the other, each of these fly-boys was unleashed on a sometimes unsuspecting bunch, choosing different directions to return just to keep us on our toes. Prizes go to the RAF Display Jaguar for the inverted attack, the Belgians for formating the two F-16s with the ERJ-145, the French Jaguar/Mirage 2000 formation and those big-boy Nimrod, E-3 and ATR who, determined not to be left out, settled for a wing-waggle instead.
Air-Scene UK would like to extend its thanks to Richard Caruana, the gang from Squadron Prints (Hi, Moggy!) and the aviation buffs from Malta who all made this trip so worthwhile and kept our minds off the Maltese roads and drivers (but not the women)...