2016 Event Review

Location: Malta
Admission: N/A
Parking: N/A
Rating out of 10: Not an air show


The small island state of Malta, located strategically on the main central sea lanes of the Mediterranean Sea and just a mere 70 miles to the south of Sicily Italy, has since 1973 provided a world class Search-and-Rescue (SAR) service to mariners of the region, thanks to the synergistic joint-operations of Maltese and Italian armed forces.

In particular, the 24/7 all-weather capability's service by means of helicopter owes its genesis to the presence on the tri-island republic of a small Italian Military Mission (IMM), and its SAR dedicated rotary wing platforms. Initially, the Italian Army Air Corps (Aviazione Leggera dell'Esercito - ALE) were deployed, concurrently to the arrival in Malta of four donated Agusta Bell AB47 G-2 from German Luftwaffe surplus, and Fassberg trained Maltese pilots and technicians. The first seeds of interoperability were thus sown for the several joint Italo-Maltese flight crews which followed on board the ALE's single-engined AB204 helicopters.

The Missione Italiana di Cooperazione Tecnico Militare (MICTM), which was then IMM's first (of several) official designation, ran its first stint of operations in various military logistic fields between 1st August 1973 and 1979. The Armed Forces of Malta (AFM) had just been raised by the Maltese XXVII Parliament Act, adopted on 22nd September 1970, and the Agreement in the field of Scientific Cooperation signed bilaterally in 1967 served as starter to sign a Memorandum of Understanding for the training of the Malta Pioneer Corps. Upon a Maltese government's request, the Mission's operations were interrupted on 28th July, 1979.
The IMM was reactivated between 1981 and 1984 to provide more substantial military training under two new designations: the Delegazione Italiana di Assistenza Tecnico Militare (DIATM) and the Missione Italiana di Cooperazione Tecnica a Malta (MICTM). This time round, the SAR service was specifically included, and it subsequently saw the establishment on 24th July, 1982 of the Italian Air Force (Aereonautica Militare Italiana - AMI) SAR unit on the Islands, utilising an Agusta Bell 204 from 15° Stormo, followed a year after by a second helicopter.
Train up of the Maltese military aviators from the AFM was quick and efficient, with the first MEDEVAC mission by an Italo-Maltese helo crew being performed on 19th October, 1982 from the sister island's Gozo General Hospital.
A very brief crisis in Italo-Maltese bilateral relations, between December 1984 and September 1985, saw IMM operations suspended with exception of SAR duties.
Then, on 15th October, 1987 the first AMI all-weather twin-engined Agusta Bell AB212 arrived in Malta, with its first MEDEVAC performed by an Italo-Maltese helo crew just barely over a month afterwards, on 27th November, 1987. The AMI component of the IMM was based at the AFM's own Air Squadron (later re-designated as the AFM Air Wing, on its elevation to full unit status in 2006) within the perimeter of the Malta International Airport (the former RAF Luqa's aerodrome)
All flights, particularly SAR missions, were co-crewed by a mixed Italo-Maltese aircrew of pilots, Italian technicians/winchmen and Maltese rescue-swimmers, a modus operandi which ascertained knowledge sharing and gained experience under the belt through practical hands-on, the Maltese personnel's certification and qualification with ensuing mutual interoperability. Capable of carrying medical personnel and up to three stretcher cases on any given SAR/Medevac mission, each AB212 shared hangar space with the AFM's own air assets.
Having its own unique and enviable Italian R&D-developed navigational system, the Italian AB212s' unmistakable profile and distinctive thumping sound has always been a reassuring signal in the Maltese skies for those mariners in some peril or other. Also known as the UH-1N or Twin Huey, with the unarmed version being designated HH-1N, it was derived from the venerable UH-1 Iroquois or "Huey", and mostly reminiscent of the Vietnam War and the several war movies that depicted the South-East Asia conflict, such as "Apocalypse Now".
The IMM morphed again to become Missione Italiana di Assistenza Tecnico Militare (MIATM) on the 14th July 1988 with its new raison d'etre based on a new memorandum signed by Italy's Ministry of Defence and Malta's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Their revised presence in Malta had five key objectives: to provide the Maltese Government with an upgraded approach and methodology towards the implementation and commissioning of several more major civil engineering works and infrastructural projects. And also the key objectives for the provision of logistic support and the Maltese troops' retraining in supporting the AFM's units and its brigade HQ. A study would also be undertaken about the ongoing feasibility and sustainability of long term technical military assistance, such as the purchase of new ATC and radar hardware equipment.
The entry of the Republic of Malta into the European Union (EU) in 2004 saw it tapping into and benefitting from the EU's External Borders' Fund (EBF). The EBF was particularly focused on aiding Malta through varied assistance as the EU's newest and southernmost member state in the face of the overwhelmingly staggering numbers of illegal immigrants making risky sea crossings from Libya in North Africa, in attempts to reach Italy.
Amongst several initiatives and projects in the EBF's pipeline of funding, besides those related to law-enforcement and border control hardware and training procurements, the Maltese military's SAR-capabilities' upgrade was also on the cards, and this came in the shape and form of new SAR-helicopters, fixed wing aircraft and patrol-boats.
Since the AFM's 1970 inception, its military hardware inventory relied on British colonial hand-me-downs and several second-hand donated articles of military hardware, like patrol-boats, helicopters and weapons from nations friendly to Malta, which included Germany, Italy, Libya, North Korea and the USA. This reliance on equipment from other foreign militaries was, over the years, proving to be lacking in cost-effectiveness, in operational sustainability and in adequate operations' efficacy with enough apt ready assets for use. Efforts to mitigate this were made with some specific purchases from the used UK surplus kit and ex-former East German stocks of equipment and spare parts, at a time when most modern and major forces were disposing of their older (mostly Cold war era) hardware types in favour of faster, more economical and technologically advanced units with computerized instruments and systems on board.
Parallel to all this, on 15th March, 2004 a new memorandum was signed on new IMM roles, and its mission's role changes from assistance to collaboration, and its named designated changed again to Missione Italiana di Collaborazione nel Campo della Difesa (MICCD). On ratification in 2009 of this memorandum, on 4th December 2011, over €4 million worth of equipment was handed over from the IMM to the AFM.
Until 2014, the AFM's air asset inventory was still missing its own all-weather SAR rotary platform. The acquisition of two EBF co-funded brand new Agusta Westland AW139s enabled Maltese flight crews to begin conversion and retraining on the type so as to prepare for the eventual handover from the IMM's AMI component of all SAR and medevac roles. Other air assets added to the AFM Air Wing's fleet in 2011 and 2012 included two factory fresh Hawker Beechcraft B200 King Air fixed-wing maritime patrol and surveillance aircraft. The AFM is set to receive another B200 and also a third AW139 during 2016 bringing up the envisaged full complement of types.
By June 2016, the AMI AB212s' work in Malta had entered into a period of handover with more duties being re-tasked to the two Maltese AW139s. Training on the new type is now at an advanced stage, with AFM crews becoming more dependent on the AW139. The handover process will continue for a number of months and it is envisaged that the AB212s will remain in Malta for at least the remainder of 2016.
On the 2nd June, 2016 a ceremony was held in Malta, over Marsamxett harbour and Ta' Xbiex sea front, marking the 'handing over of the baton' between both countries' SAR teams. Just after sunset, a series of dual flypasts and break was performed by an AMI's AB212 and an AFM's AW139. The display coincided with the annual national celebrations of Italy's Republic Day.
Back on the Italian mainland, the AMI's own changeover from AB212s to AW139s is also underway, and once withdrawn from service, most aviation enthusiasts shall be sad to see the AB212 go. Maltese aviation buffs shall surely miss seeing the type in our skies and hearing it approach, at all hours of the day, be it rain or shine. It is hoped that upon completing its SAR tenure here in Malta, the Italian Air Force would consider donating one of these two airworthy airframes to the Malta Aviation Museum at Ta' Qali as a lasting exhibit and memento of the mutual friendship, professional approach, milestones achieved and to the sacrifices made by both countries' military personnel over these last 40 years of unwaning cooperation.

Participating aircraft (display only):

MM81212 – Italian Air Force Agusta Bell AB212AM of the Italian Military Mission in Malta; and AS1429 – Maltese Armed Forces' Air Wing's Agusta Westland AW139.

Author's acknowledgements to Maj. Ivan M. Consiglio (AFM Retd.) and Col. Luca Mariz (Italian Air Force).

Report and photography by Christopher Mifsud for .

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