Airshow enthusiasts will not soon forget 2008, with the weather spoiling airshows across Europe, even leading to some cancellations. At the end of September, Malta was struggling with some water supply problems after weeks of warm, dry weather. The annual Malta International Airshow solved the problem: on the show's first day, Saturday September 27, heavy clouds and rain lay over the small island. Luckily, Sunday weather was more favourable with plenty of sun shine and high temperatures, but unfortunately also a fair bit of backlighting late in the afternoon.
The air display is held along the seaside promenade at St-Paul's Bay, on the north-eastern side of the island. It moved to this location a few years ago because of construction works at the expanding Luqa airport on the opposite side of the country. The static display is still held there nowadays, but one wonders just how much money organizers lose because people don't bother to venture out to Luqa to see the static aircraft.
There certainly wasn't all that much to lure visitors to the static display this year in the way of things that hadn't been to the show before. The real challenge for the Malta Aviation Society, the organizers of the Malta International Airshow together with TSA Consulting, was how to gete people to pay for the static display and not just visit the flying display for free.
Stars of the static park were a Swedish C-130 and USAF KC-135. Just like 65 years ago, the German landing at Malta failed, possibly due to a significant Royal Air Force (RAF) presence. The cancellation of the German Tornados was particularly regrettable given the low number of jets participating this year. The Armed Forces of Malta showed off their ageing Alouette III and Islander along a civilian Bulldog which still sports its original Maltese military colours. The RAF and Royal Navy completed the static line-up with 4 Harriers and 2 Jetstreams respectively.
The rest of the static park consisted of aircraft which were to take part in the air display at St-Paul's Bay and most of the display spares.
Kicking off the air display on Saturday under a dark sky was Flt. Charlie Matthews with the RAF Typhoon display, the only fighter of the show. Later that afternoon, he returned together with the spare aircraft while on their way to Spain for another airshow in Barcelona, leaving the Sunday show without any fast jet display at all. RAF solo displays featured heavily in the programme, with the Tucano, King Air 200 and Hawk all being put through their paces, though unfortunately all in their regular colours rather than the special display colour schemes for the 2008 season, and sadly also lacking the punch needed to impress the spectators spread out along a crowdline of considerable length. Completing the RAF line-up was the RAF Aerobatic Team, the Red Arrows, representing the 'Best of British'. Interestingly, in 2008, the Best of British was 20% New Zealand and 5% Belgian, and in Malta even 10% absent, with team commentator 'Red 10' Andy Robbins staying at home after becoming a proud father for the second time a few days earlier. Filling in for him was Red 2 for the 2009 season, Zane Sennett, with a more impromptu commentary routine than usual with the Reds, but which was presented with a lot of enthusiasm.
This strong RAF presence was especially welcome in the RAF's 90th anniversary year, given its role during the siege of Malta in World War II. The actions of the pilots of the 3 Gloster Gladiators 'Faith', 'Hope' and 'Charity' who defended Malta until reinforcements arrived, are still honoured to this day.
Without the RAF, it is doubtful there would have been an airshow this year, with the only other foreign participation coming from Italy. First up was the CL415 water bomber demonstrating different fire fighting techniques and its agility on the water, which included going backwards! The second Italian aircraft was part of the role demonstration together with the Armed Forces of Malta. The Maltese Islander located a person in distress in the water and dropped a dinghy to provide shelter until the Italian AB212 rescue helicopter appeared on the scene to pick the victim up. The final military aircraft in the display also belonged to the Maltese air wing, with their Alouette III flying the Maltese flag during a fly-by.
Civilian participation in the show was limited to two microlights on Sunday and a Single Otter float plane belonging to Harbour Air, who provide scenic flights around the islands of Malta and Gozo.
In all, there were very few flying demonstrations to fill an afternoon, leaving long gaps in the programme. Combined with a poor sound system along the promenade and on the beach, this led to confusion among the sizeable crowd whether or not the show was over at times, particularly on Saturday when there was a 30 minute-gap prior to the display by the Red Arrows during which many people left, missing the highlight of the show. It would be far better if organizers should would not stretch a programme if they have fewer displays. A fast-paced display is preferable to a stretched one, even if it means the programme is only 2 hours long.
Both squadron leader Andy Pawsey, who provided commentary for the RAF solo displays, and an Armed Forces of Malta pilot who presented the Maltese role demonstration did their best to keep the audience's interest up, a commendable effort.
An additional problem was the curved crowd line. If pilots stuck to the display line measured from the closest point of the crowd line, the majority of spectators would be watching the display from a long distance indeed. Flying closer to the crowd line however, combined with a on-crowd wind on Saturday led to a number of crowd line breaches. A far from ideal situation!
With the air display at St-Paul's Bay being free of charge and fewer people visiting the static at Luqa and paying the €5 admission fee, securing participation to fill the programme is not the only challenge facing the organizers of the Malta International Airshow. Corporate sponsorship will be needed to foot the €60000 organizational bill if the show is to continue in the future. How additional sponsorship for this event, apart from this year's last-minute sponsor Lufthansa Technik, can be found in uncertain economic times, is going to be the real challenge. One can only hope the airshow can move back to the airport soon so at least there will be more paying audience members again to give some breathing space to the show. The addition of regular airport traffic inbetween display acts also has entertainment value to many so it can help to bring more enjoyment to the general public and they help fill the afternoon if there are fewer display acts. Attracting foreign visitors is certainly no easy task nowadays, certainly not on the outer edges of Europe!
by Chris Janssens Special thanks to Karen Verheyden for her invaluable assistance with making the most of my Malta holiday
Lay-out and content by Chris Janssens, 2005 - present