The Republic of Malta (Maltese: Repubblika ta 'Malta), is a Southern European microstate located in the Mediterranean, almost 700 kilometer south of the Italian capital Rome. The British colony was granted independence on the 21st of September 1964. The republic includes the islands of Malta, Gozo, Comino, Manoel and the small uninhabited islands Cominotto, Filfla, Fungus Rock and the St Paul's Islands. The Armed Forces of Malta (AFM) is Malta's military organization. Its Air Wing is one of the smallest air forces in Europe. But, with ten aircraft in service today, assisted by two Italian Air Force helicopters, it performs a great variety of tasks.


During the 170 years Malta was a British colony, there was no need for an independent force to protect Malta, because the islands were under protection of British Forces. The need for own Armed Forces obviously changed when Malta became an independent nation in 1964. Today's AFM traces its origins back to August 1970, when the Parliament of Malta enacted Act No. XXVII. This act made it possible to build her own Armed Forces (at first known as Malta Land Forces). Besides Land Forces, also the Air Wing was founded as an operational branch in the early 1970s. At first, the Air Wing consisted of a small helicopter flight. The first helicopters which served with the wing were four Bell 47G-2s. These were donated by West-Germany. Later on the wing received two Agusta Bell (AB) 206A helicopters. The first one arrived in 1973 and was donated by Libya. During that period the Maltese government had such a good relation with the Libya, that it allowed Libya to set up a military mission on the main island. Libya assisted the Air Wing in patrolling around the Maltese islands and stationed AĆ©rospatiale SA321 Super Frelon helicopters there to do so. These were flown by Libyan pilots, accompanied by Maltese observers. In addition, in 1975 an agreement was signed with Italy which resulted in the set-up of an Italian military mission on Malta. The Italians assisted in the further development of the Air Wing.

Captain Aldo Borg, pilot with and third in command of the AFM Air Wing, explains about the history from the '80s and on: "When in August 1980 an Italian oil-drilling vessel under contract of the Maltese government was ordered out of the area by a Libyan frigate on the grounds that it was operating in Libyan waters, the Maltese government expelled the Libyan Military Mission from Malta. Three Libyan SA-316B Alouette III helicopters were left behind and were later on officially donated by Libya. After several years in storage, these helicopters were overhauled in France. To fit their designated Search And Rescue (SAR) tasks, equipment such as a rescue hoist, cargo hook and emergency flotation gear were installed. These helicopters became fully operational in 1993."
The 1980 conflict with Libya improved relations between Malta and Italy. A few years later Italy recognized Malta's independence and the Italian Air Force from then on assisted in SAR tasks. The Italians based two AB204 helicopters at Malta International Airport (IAP) at Luqa to do so. In 1987 the AB204 was replaced by the AB212. The latter is still in service with the Italian Air Force today and two of those helicopters are still based at Malta IAP. Also two Mc Donnell Douglas NH500M helicopters served with the Air Wing for a few years. These helicopters previously served with the Italian Guardia di Financa, an Italian military organized police responsible for dealing with financial crime, smuggling and anti-drug operations.

Borg continues: "In the meantime, Malta purchased its first fixed wing aircraft. In 1991 Malta bought five Cessna 0-IE Bird Dogs from the United States of America. These were replaced by five Bulldog T.1 propeller trainers between 2000 and 2001, which aren't operational anymore and currently stored at Malta IPA. The Air Wing also purchased two BN-2 Islander aircraft. Besides fixed wing aircraft, additional helicopters joined the Air Wing during the '90s. Two additional SA-316B helicopters, bought from the Royal Netherlands Air Force, are still active."

Organization structure

The AFM is Malta's military organization tasked with primary defense functions and safeguarding national sovereignty and interest, both in peacetime and in crisis. Malta's military instrument, in the form of the operational capabilities delivered by the AFM, is a major component of the Maltese Island's national defense and security architecture. The Armed Forces of Malta are organized in five regiments. Borg explains further: "1st Regiment is an infantry battalion and is based at Lyster Barracks, Hal Far. 3rd Regiment has a combat support role and operates from Safi Barracks, Safi. 4th Regiment acts in the combat service support role and is located in Luqa Barracks. The Maritime Squadron provides the maritime component of the AFM and operates from Haywharf Quay in Pieta. The fifth regiment is the Air Wing. We are based in the military zone of Malta IAP."

Tasks, organization and assets Air Wing

The Air Wing performs a great variety of tasks. Their primary task are maintaining territorial integrity of land and waters to keep Malta and its inhabitants safe from military, environmental and natural threats. AFM also contributes to international peace and stability by participating overseas crisis management operations. The secondary defense role includes mostly assisting in civil emergencies and in Police and Security Service. "Even though our air force is just a small one compared to other European ones, we still fly about 1,500 missions in one year. The Alouette III alone is responsible for up to 200 flying hours a year", Borg says proudly.
To perform all the mentioned tasks, the AFM is organized in several units. Non-flying units are the Wing Headquarters and the Support Squadron. Headquarters is tasked with command, control and coordination of the wing's subunits. It ensures the readiness to respond to all various operational requirements locally as well as overseas. Headquarters is responsible for transport management, logistics and all the administration that comes with the Air Wing's tasks. The Support Squadron of the Air Wing maintains all aircraft to keep them ready to be scrambled at a moment's notice. Counted in staff members it is the biggest unit within the Air Wing.
About the Operations Squadron captain Borg explains as follows: "The Operations Squadron of our Air Wing knows three flights: the Fixed Wing Flight (FWF), the Rotary Wing Flight (RWF) and the Rescue Section (RS)."
The FWF is responsible for coastal offshore patrolling, monitoring and reporting irregular migration at sea, fisheries patrol and anti-drugs operations. To do so, the unit has one Britten Norman BN-2T Islander and two Hawker Beechcraft King Air 200 in service. A third is one on order, delivery is expected in March 2017.
All helicopter operations resort with the RWF, which include offshore Casualty Evacuation (CASEVAC), Medical Evacuation (MEDEVAC) and offers assistance to all departments of Malta's government. The RS consists of soldiers and rescue personnel specially trained for rescue operations on land and at sea. Each rescue-swimmer is qualified in first aid, life-saving, and other specialist skills. Bog: "This unit was responsible for SAR operations since 1978, when the Royal Air Force 1151 Marine Craft Unit was disbanded in view of the departure of the British Forces from Malta. But the first ever successful rescue the Air Wing carried out was already in 1974." RS and RWF both use the SA316B and the AW139, assisted by the two earlier mentioned Italian helicopters.

Overseas operations

The Air Wing participated in several overseas operations, conducted by Frontex. Frontex was established in 2004 by the European Council to strengthen cooperation between the European Union's member states in the area of illegal immigration, asylum and security. One of the first operations the wing participated in was Operation Nautilus in 2007. Operation Nautilus was an operation to practice cooperation with other air forces in operational circumstances. To take part the wing leased a CASA C-212 for three months from CAE Aviation of Luxemburg to perform SAR tasks during this operation. Other Frontex operations, for example to control illegal migration and cross-border crimes, the Air Wing participated in were the operations Indalo (Malaga, Spain) and EPN Aeneas (Brindisi, Italy). Currently the Air Wing participates in Operation Triton (controlling coastal waters and irregular migration) with one AW139 and one Beech King Air 200.

Old for new

Italy has decided to withdraw its fleet of AB212s however, which also applies for the two helicopters which are permanently based at Malta. AW139-pilot Warrant Officer I Ruben Demicoli says: "The exact year for the withdrawal of 'our' AB212s is not known yet. From the moment these helicopters are withdrawn, our cooperation deal with the Italian Air Force to have two helicopters permanently based here, will end at the same time. From that moment on the Air Wing will be solely responsible for SAR duties in Maltese waters. To do so we have ordered three AW139 helicopters. The first one was delivered in 2014. The third on the 23rd of September 2016, one day before our annual airshow."

International airshow

Each year in September an international airshow is held at Malta IAP, an event which the AFM Air Wing organizes in cooperation with the Malta Aviation Society. This year's edition had a different and smaller set-up than last year. Ruben Demicoli explains why: "During an outdoor car- and motorcycle event held earlier this year on this airport, sadly a few people were injured badly. Therefor our government decided the set-up of this year's airshow had to be altered. The static show was allowed to be on platform 4 of the airport, but the actual air displays had to be flown over sea, with the crowd on a safe distance watching from the shoreline. On top of that the budget for this year's airshow was decreased." Because the Malta International Airshow celebrates its 25th birthday in 2017, it is generally expected that the government will allow the show to be organized by the usual proven concept again.
This year's show was held on the 24th and 25th of September. "Being a former colony of the United Kingdom, the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm participate almost every year. As well as this year, with a Beech King Air 200 and an Avenger T.1", Demicoli says. He continues: "We are a proud nation and there for the AFM Air Wing presents itself together with its partners during Malta's biggest outdoor event. Even though this year's edition is smaller than previous ones, we managed to put up our third AW139 on static display, as well as our Beech King Air 200MPA. Other aircraft in this year's static show are for example an United States Navy (USN) P-8 Poseidon, two Ukrainian Su-27 Flankers, a Polish Air Force C-295M and a Polish Navy M-28."
Sadly, the air display on Sunday the 25th had to be cancelled for safety reasons. The strong wind caused very high waves making it impossible for the pilots to see the display line at sea. On Saturday however the airshow was held between 17.00 and 19.00 hours above Smart City, near the capital Valetta. The setting sun gave the show an extra dimension. The Air Wing presented a duo-display by an AW139 and Beech King Air 200MPA, the USN performed several fly-by's with a P-8, the Italian Air Force simulated a SAR-mission with an AB212 and the Polish Air Force Team Iskri showed a tight flown display with their TS-11 jet trainers. Show stoppers were an Ukrainian Su-27UB and the Italian Pioneer Team. The latter performed the big finale with their Pioneer 330 propeller aircraft, showing the Italian Flag in the sky with fireworks.

This article was also published in Lotnictwo Aviation International 3-2017.

Acknowledgements: The writer would like to thank Gerard van der Lit, Martin van Vorstenbosch, Hans van Lierop, the Malta Aviation Museum and the AFM Air Wing for their company, help and cooperation which made this article possible.