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Special Report: Malta

PUBLISHED: 16:55 16 April 2014

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With stunning views and Mediterranean weather, it’s no wonder Malta is becoming increasingly popular with pilots

An important British colony for 164 years, Malta is also a country rich with aviation history. This dates back to 1916 when a seaplane base named Kalafrana was constructed following the sinking of HMS Triumph and Majestic by submarines in the Mediterranean. As the sea conditions were not always suitable for takeoff and landing of, an area which could accommodate land-based aeroplanes had to be found. Marsa was the first place to be utilised in this way, although it was not a proper airfield − rather a suitably flat ‘landing ground’.

Malta’s first genuine airfield was Hal Far, which was strategically positioned in the south of the island, making it excellent for sea approaches. Overall five airfields were built around Malta, the other four being Ta’ Qali, Qrendi, Safi and Luqa − which is now the only remaining airport on the island.

Luqa, as well as being today a huge international airport, is also the base of operations for Diamond Aviation; the first training organisation in the country to offer commercial flight training. It was set up in 2009 and joined two other training organisations − Malta School of Flying and European Pilot Academy − already running from the airport. The well-known Belgian school, Hubair has now set up operations at Luqa, as well as a school offering PPL training − Sky People − which demonstrates how popular Malta has become for aviation training.

Marco Ciliberti and Jeremy Tan run Diamond Aviation and are the hosts for my visit. Whilst Marco handles much of the business side of the company, Jeremy is the technical expert and a flight instructor. As the name suggests, Diamond Aviation uses only Diamond aircraft to conduct its training, with a fleet comprising single-engined DA20 and DA40, and a DA42 twin. It also offers aerobatic training on an Extra EA-200 and a Mudry CAP 10, which are not owned by the company but are available for training purposes. The DA40 and DA42 are fitted with 2.0l Thielert diesel engines, so run on Jet A1 fuel, whilst the DA20 runs on avgas. This is important in Malta as it enables the school to avoid the use of mogas which, above temperatures of forty degrees Celsius, can cause vapour lock in ‘traditional’ aero engines. It wants to offer training as professionally as possible to prepare students for work with an airline. This is one of the reasons it has chosen Diamond aeroplanes equipped with glass cockpits.

An interesting point about training in Malta is that − due to being a former British colony − it has adopted the CAA approach to training. This has meant there is a higher expectation of flying standards and level of training than there might have been otherwise. Examiners from the UK are the preferred choice of Diamond Aviation. Marco tells me an further benefit in using British examiners is the high standard of English.

Jeremy Nordan is Diamond Aviation’s head of training and, being an examiner as well as an instructor, he is able to make sure that students are fully prepared for their tests. The time it takes depends, of course, on the skill of the student. Both Jeremy Tan and Jeremy Nordan tell me they do not like to push students through too quickly as the school wants to be recognised by airlines as an organisation that provides “only the best pilots”.

Flying around Malta is a fantastic experience − there aren’t many islands inhabited by almost half a million people (including Gozo) that you can circumnavigate in half an hour. It is from the air that you realise how the development of Malta has created a unique environment. Much of the wildlife has disappeared due to urbanisation and a thirst for hunting rivalled only by the Deep South of the United States. Because Luqa is the only airport in the country, you would find yourself flying to Sicily frequently during lessons. The closest place to land is Aeroporto di Comiso, which has a hard runway and is around half an hour and 80nm away. There are many other options of varying sizes around Malta, including the islands of Lampedusa and Pantelleria, as well as Catania at the base of Mt. Etna on the Sicilian mainland.

Aside from the number of airfields the topography of Sicily is vastly different from Malta, not least because of Mt. Etna. The Diamond DA42 provides twin-engine security in exploring the various altitudes of the area which, as well as the experience gained from spending flight time over water, teaches skills that would perhaps not have been gained elsewhere. While Malta isn’t big enough to conduct navigation training, the Sicilian terrain is brilliant for it. For British pilots, the best of both worlds can be found in Malta, with similarities to the UK and a wide array of flying experiences at their fingertips.

For most of the year Malta enjoys Mediterranean sun and clear skies. Wind is the main factor in cutting down flying days, but conditions are excellent for well over two-thirds of the year. Marco tells me that although the crosswinds can be a hassle they provide another aspect to training, making sure students are capable of taking off and landing in less than ideal conditions. “Safety,” he says “is paramount.”

Of course, training now also benefits from the use of advanced simulators, which create scenarios that may be rare in real environments or could be too dangerous for a student to take control in. Hubair owns two simulators, made by Alsim. I have a chance to see these when I visit the school’s headquarters and meet Annaleen Otte who is the chief operations officer and Max Lion (what a great name) who runs operations in Malta. They tell me that Hubair was set up in 2001 and arrived in Malta approximately a year ago. Malta is desirable because of the good flying weather, challenging flying conditions and high standard of English − further confirming my early impressions. Hubair has built up a good reputation for training and has a particularly good relationship with Qatar Airlines. It also employs four female instructors, including Melanie Essles − the aerobatic champion of France.

I was also fortunate enough to meet Patrick Fenech and Trevor Darmanin of Malta School of Flying, which operates from an historical building that used to be the main terminal at Luqa. Apparently it will be knocked down at some point in the near future, so that crushed my admiration of it.

Malta School of Flying operates the largest fleet at the airport, comprising mostly Cessnas and Tecnams. The organisation has recently acquired a brand new ALX simulator for MCC, CPL and IR training.

I was unable to see anyone at European Pilot Academy during my time in Malta, but have since spoken to Matthew Rota, who is the operations manager for the company. This is the longest running school at the airport with over twenty years of experience. According to Matthew, its main aims are to maintain a professional level of training and to look ahead to accomplish the far reaching demands of tomorrow’s airlines. European Pilot Academy claims a 98 per cent ATPL pass rate.

No-one from Sky People was around either, but I understand it bases its operations in old RAF hangars, which looked stylishly vintage. It seems the company has the most scope for growth and as far as I know will continue its focus on PPL training, with an aim to becoming an ATO in the near future.

I was interested to learn about the Malta International Airshow, which Marco from Diamond Aviation helps to organise. Held each September, it has been running for 21 years. It is largely a military event and participants usually include the RAF, US, Dutch, French, Italian, German and NATO assets, but it also has seen participation from Israel, Libya and Poland amongst others. The airshow is hailed as one of the largest and best events in Malta. It gives a fantastic opportunity to visit with awesome late summer weather and an excellent excuse to include aviation in a family holiday, inevitably growing any child’s passion for flying. Since it began, the show has seen a huge array of incredible aircraft including Israeli F-15s and F-16s, Czech L-39, Italian F-104s and Do-228, Ex-Israeli A-4 Skyhawks, US Navy F-14, EA-6B, S-3s, F-18s, Tornados, B-52, B-1B, and the BBMF’s Spitfire and Hurricane dressed in RAF Luqa livery. These are in addition to most of the European national display teams including the Red Arrows, Patrouille de France, Frecce Tricolori, the Spanish team Patruila Aguoila, and the Swiss PC-7 Team, as well as the Breitling Jet Team.

In the evening of the first day of my visit Jeremy Tan invited me to sample some Maltese cuisine. I was staying in St. Julian’s Bay, which is a main centre of attraction for tourists and the local population. The area provides many food options, including excellent seafood and very good lamb − although, unlike the seafood, I’m not sure where the restaurants get it from. As Malta has adopted such a British way of life it has unfortunately been swamped with fast food outlets, which only seem appetising after a fair few ‘cold ones’; however the city is also abundant in the sort of place we were looking for. The meal was almost Italian in nature with a ridiculous pasta starter which could easily be mistaken for the main course. In fact on my first visit to Italy, at seventeen, I will never forget the demands I made for a larger portion when I was served my bowl of penne, only to find an even larger plate of food plonked in front of me twenty minutes later. Having been sat at a table mostly consisting of similarly-aged girls I had no option but to force the whole lot down. On this occasion in Malta I was better prepared and ate each piece of meat in my starter, before leaving some of the rest in order to enjoy my main course.

It wasn’t until the next day that I could see a little more of the country and was dropped off in Valetta − the capital city of Malta − where I was amazed by the impressive architecture, which is impossible to escape. It is a place that really needs to been seen in reality to appreciate, but perhaps the most surprising sight was the red telephone and post boxes clearly adopted from the UK. I couldn’t help but enjoy the comforting and homely feeling I got from seeing these, although not as much as I enjoyed the practicality of the three-pronged plug sockets in my hotel, which are a Maltese standard. A statue of Queen Victoria was standing proudly outside the library after my next turn and I was again reminded of the spread of the British Empire during the nineteenth Century. I was pleased to feel that Malta is almost certainly a place that has benefitted from colonisation (other former colonies have more of a question mark hanging over them).

It took me only an hour to return to St. Julian’s Bay, which I have to say was a very pleasurable experience. Most of the walking was along a promenade and the only other part of my journey was a mile trip by ferry. I benefitted from the warmer November climate and also the multitude of British sport channels available at any bar. The viewing options were perhaps even better than the pubs here. However the most amazing thing was the time it took to travel the distance, the majority of which was on foot. It shows just how small the country is, but it was great that I could basically travel from the equivalent of London to Birmingham in such a short time. I can’t imagine the Maltese government is currently arguing over an HS2-style development.

Chronologically rewinding a little that day and I am at Luqa Airport in Diamond Aviation’s DA40, ready to take off with Jeremy for my flight around the island (yes, I was disappointed we didn’t go in the DA42). We initially head east to see the area I am staying in, and from the air I can see some of the properties on a number of amazing bays which, unsurprisingly, have mostly been purchased by wealthy owners as holiday homes. The sea has that special glow that only seems to be present in warm climates and the shore demonstrates the urban environment that most of Malta seems to have become. Towering above the rest of the buildings is the Portomaso business building which, at 98m is the tallest in Malta, and not far out to sea are many fish farm nets, contributing to the Maltese seafood industry.

Jeremy easily demonstrates both the power and agility of the Diamond, enabling me to get some good camera shots through my little window before we head in the direction of Gozo. As we fly overhead one of the best sights is the Citadel, which was first built around 1500 BC and for over 3,000 years remained Gozo’s only fortified refuge against attack. My favourite moment was when Gozo’s inland sea came into view; an incredible cave through the cliffs allowing the sea through and creating a bay on the north of the island. This is apparently one of the best sites in the world for diving and it is even possible to swim through without any assisting equipment. As we head back around the west of Malta there are many limestone quarries dotted around, which is a successful industry for the country and provides the building material for most of the structures in Malta; including the original terminal at Luqa Airport. The last really special place we fly over is the island of Filfla. It is almost the only wildlife haven around Malta and access is restricted, giving me great joy having been expertly navigated overhead. The island also holds an interesting piece of history, claiming to be the ‘most bombed rock in the world’, as the British forces have used it for target practice over the years. Shortly before Jeremy performs an excellent landing on Luqa’s main runway (a special treat as normally the runways aren’t shared) I spot the last remains of Hal Far airfield. I wonder whether, with all the aviation prevalence in Malta, there might one day be a resurrection of a historical airfield.

It seems at the moment that Luqa is performing better than is required and with the government and general aviation industry working so well in conjunction, I look forward to hearing about developments in the coming years.

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