Malta International Airshow

Saturday 25th September - Sunday 26th September 2021

Organising airshows is a notoriously tricky business. So too, occasionally, is reviewing them; it's not always clear who is to blame when things go wrong, or deserving of praise when things go right. This 26th edition of the Malta International Airshow, held over the weekend of 25th and 26th September, contained ample scope for analysing both the positive and the negative…

Gordon Duncan reports back from the Mediterranean, with photography by both the author and Sam Wise.

Malta occupies a blessed location. The warm climate, and any number of photogenic backdrops, combine with a virtual guarantee of sunshine to render it pretty much ideal territory for an airshow, and by hosting the event in late September the organisers neatly sidestep the fierce heat of the Maltese summer during which temperatures can regularly top 40°. The show is essentially split across two locations, with a small but impressive static located at the international airport in Luqa. In contrast to some previous years, this year's flying display was turned into a seaside event with show-centre located a few hundred metres offshore of the National Aquarium in Qawra (pronounced 'ow-ra', apparently, with a silent 'Q'). Though undeniably picturesque, this always seemed an odd choice for an international airshow, and the fact that it was confirmed as the location for the flying only a couple of weeks prior to the event perhaps hinted at some of the problems to come.

The 'Q' in Qawra may be silent; the flying most certainly wasn't, with thunderous routines from some of Europe's top fast-jet displays shattering the beachside tranquillity. Naturally it wouldn't be an airshow, any airshow, without some unforeseen complication with a star act and alas, Malta was to prove no exception, with the Belgian F-16 display aircraft (and spare!) going tech at the worst possible moment. Whilst this was undoubtedly a blow for the enthusiast, it was devastating for the pilot and support crew, denying 'Vador' and his Dark Falcon one final opportunity to display outside their native Belgium. The Swiss Hornet also succumbed to technical gremlins, thus blowing something of a hole in Saturday's flying display, but here at least the fates intervened and we were treated to the full routine (arriving in style in formation with the ever-excellent PC-7 Team) on the Sunday. Rather brilliantly, it later transpired that the wife of the F/A-18 display pilot was dispatched from Switzerland to Malta on a regular commercial flight with the spare part required to get the jet airborne for the Sunday show. Sadly history does not relate if she checked it into the hold or sat with it on her lap during the flight… the latter, if nothing else, certainly provokes an enduring mental image. The solo jet component was rounded off by the always impressive Soloturk F-16, making its Malta debut, and the Rafale from the Armée de l'Air (in what must be, incidentally, the only Rafale in the whole of the French military not to be sporting special markings). The consensus view was that the Rafale just about shaded it over his counterparts; a blistering, earth-shaking ten minutes of fast-jet precision.

For the foreign visitor, this show provides a rare opportunity to witness Malta's small but proud military up close, and they opened the flying on both days with a fine SAR demo showcasing the main role of the local forces, featuring an AW-139 'rescuing' someone from the water aided by a King Air, after a lovely old Alouette III had kicked things off with a couple of passes trailing the Maltese national flag. All three types were presented on static display back at the main airport, alongside AW-139s from seemingly every branch of the Italian emergency services. More poignantly for the enthusiast, the static also hosted specially marked examples of the Belgian C-130 and German C-160 fleets; both appearing at international airshows for almost certainly the last time. Indeed the specific C-160 on display carried markings which proclaimed it to be on its 'Goodbye Tour', together with the legend 'Weltweit Im Einsatz' - 'in use worldwide' - a fitting tribute to the Transall's long years of service in peacekeeping operations across the globe. The Italian Air Force provided the real icing on the cake, with a pair of Tornados and, most impressively, an AMX - a two-seater, no less. With these charismatic and relatively rare little jets facing imminent retirement from service, it was a delight to have the chance to see an active example up close for quite possibly the last time at an airshow.

Looking at images of previous shows, it is clear that the pan dedicated to this year's static display had been shrunk somewhat dramatically. The construction of vast new hangar space effectively left the static squashed in between a taxiway and a de facto building site. Whilst this may not have been anyone's fault per se, the resultant backdrop - scaffolding and steel beams - didn't exactly do justice to the very fine exhibits which the organisers had secured. For those who had signed up to the Spotter's package (a cool €75 for the 'Gold' version), this might all have been more bearable had there been the usual opportunities to photograph the static exhibits arriving and departing. For the hardened enthusiast, these packages represent perhaps above all the chance to shoot static exhibits in the air. Here, alas, we were somewhat let down. In this instance, the 'spotter's enclosure' turned out to be nothing more than a dusty, barren patch of wasteland adjacent to the aforementioned taxiway, with zero facilities. In absolute fairness, it should be noted that we had been warned in advance about the lack of facilities, but nonetheless it came as a bit of a shock to realise that, on this occasion, nothing did indeed mean quite literally nothing. With no shelter either from the relentless Mediterranean sun, it all added up to a fairly challenging experience. To compound the situation, photographers then had to endure the spectacle of various goodies all landing on the airport's main runway, as opposed to the one which we were situated next to. Missing out on the various flying display items landing about a mile from our location was bad enough, but when first the AMX then the German Transall did the same, it was hard to shake the feeling that we had simply been forgotten about. It was a bit galling to realise that anyone who had pitched up at the airport perimeter was getting better shots of the arriving star exhibits than those of us who had paid to do so.

For a show which has always had a solid reputation for looking after its enthusiasts, such a lacklustre experience was a great pity. Rumours of 'politics' between the airshow and the airport abounded in the spotter enclosure, in which context it seemed perhaps telling that only one relatively small apron had been given over to the static display. Had it not been for the (thankfully pretty good) nightshoot on the Saturday evening, and a handful of flypasts during Monday's departures, the spotter package would have been something of a write-off.

The vast majority of the show-going public, of course, would have been unaware of any of this, and would have spent a thoroughly pleasant couple of afternoons by the seaside watching some of Europe's top display acts (including our very own Red Arrows, who closed the show on both days - in doing so perpetuating an association with Malta which, remarkably, dates all the way back to 1966). As such, it might seem self-indulgent, or perhaps even beside the point, to focus on such a niche aspect of the show, and one which is experienced by only a relatively tiny percentage of those in attendance. However, it's still worth calling out; the above is intended less as explicit criticism, and more as a newbie's honest (and subjective) appraisal of the spotter package. Something else which needs to be called out, and which certainly *would* have been experienced by the general public, was the farcical travel situation after Sunday's flying display, with the only road out of Qawra blocked in both directions for at least two hours, during which time the traffic - cars, buses, taxis et al - barely moved an inch. Again this has to call into question the suitability of Qawra as a location for the flying… whatever the cause, Sunday's post-show traffic was so biblically awful as to be a serious deterrent to anyone contemplating a return visit.

It will be interesting to see what the future holds for this show, and for the enthusiast packages in particular. With the area given over to this year's static likely to be a busy flight-apron by this time next year, presumably the static will have to relocate elsewhere on the airfield or, worse, simply be scrapped altogether. This would be a major blow, not least because, again, the actual exhibits which the organisers had secured were of the highest order. Indeed UKAR got wind of a few additional items which had been slated to attend but which, for whatever reason, didn't make it, including participation from both Algeria and Tunisia and, most spectacularly of all, a pair of (gulp!) Indian Air Force An-32s which, had they materialised, would surely have represented one of the great European airshow coups of the last twenty years. This level of ambition certainly deserves respect… but so do the enthusiasts who want to photograph such rarities up close and are prepared to pay handsomely for the privilege. Perhaps it just serves to remind us that, whilst we all from time to time have a good whinge about a package like FRIAT, ultimately it really is superb value for money. Hopefully some of the above can be addressed in future, and Malta continues to enjoy its reputation as one of Europe's finest and most enthusiast-friendly shows.