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Aviation In Malta: An Enticing History From Warplanes To Commercial Planes

by Tiziana Micallef

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RAF warplane at Luqa, 1943
*RAF Bristol Beaufort Mark II at Luqa, June 1943, via Wikimedia Commons

From different warplanes to passenger planes, the history of aviation Malta boasts, is an exciting long-haul flight through the decades. The geographical position of Malta and Gozo in the Mediterranean Sea was always strategic and it attracted the attention of many who wanted to use it not only as a naval base but also as an air base. Whether as a stop for military aircraft or commercial flights, Malta was introduced to aviation as early as February 13, 1915. On this day a British Shorts 135 aircraft took the very first flight in Malta from the Grand Harbour's waters.

Being a British colony for more than 100 years, the role of Malta as a military airbase for the British Armed Forces was crucial, especially during World War II. However, before that, Malta was already getting a taste of commercial aviation. During the 1920s, Malta was a place of landing for seaplanes carrying one or two passengers from England and Italy, together with some air mail. The first passenger plane recorded to land on the island arrived in fact from Italy in 1926, despite no proper airport existing yet at the time. So where did planes land you might ask?

Malta Military Airfields 

Malta held a strategic geographic position for the British Colony during World War II. This led the British military to build several airfields around Malta and Gozo over the years. Whether to land, fly, practice or maintain their planes, during the ferocious World War II all the airfields in Malta had an important use. These were in Marsa, Kalafrana, Hal Far, Qrendi, Hal Safi, Ta' Qali, Luqa and Ta' Lambert in Gozo.  

By 1922, the RAF Kalafrana, which was located in Marsaxlokk Bay, had become the first airbase in Malta featuring a slipway and seaplane shed built in 1917 for the then-Royal Naval Air Service (eventually Royal Air Force). Apart from being a place of landing and take-off, the RAF Kalafrana served also as dockyard construction for the assembling of seaplane parts brought from the UK. Although the RAF Kalafrana remains popular to this day, its construction came after the not-so-popular Marsa airfield, which was the first stretch of airfield that started operations during World War I. 

warplanes in line at RAF Hal Far in 1952

Fighter Wing RAAF De Havilland Vampire jets at RAF Hal Far, 1952, via Wikimedia Commons

By January 1923, the airfield in Hal Far was built by the RAF and it was only in 1976 that its importance declined. The RAF Hal Far was the first permanent airfield in Malta and consisted of two runways. Its location was very strategic as it provided a base for aircraft carrier units on their way to the British Empire and was ideal for the different military squads doing armament training. This airfield was also essential for the ideal approaches it had over the sea and provided great facilities such as an armoury, explosives area, a compass base and a control tower. With all these advantages Hal Far Airfield ended up being a primary target by the Germans and Italians during World War II. On 11 June 1940, RAF Hal Far suffered the first bombing and up until May 1943 2,300 tons of bombs had been dropped on this airfield. Nonetheless, the Hal Far airfield still managed to remain operational during and after World War II, mainly for training, aircraft maintenance and civil aviation, totalling 43 active years in Malta since its construction.>

The Siege Of Malta During World War II 

Notably, the history of aviation in Malta is very much linked to the different air bombardments that took place during World War II. Air bombardments intensified in the 1940s, leading the British to construct the airfields of Ta' Qali, Qrendi, Hal Safi and Gozo. These served as diversion airstrips for the main airfields that were heavily targeted by the enemy.

During the Siege of Malta, the island suffered intense and non-stop bombardments from June 1940 to November 1942. Unsurprisingly, the Siege of Malta saw the two Axis powers in the Mediterranean trying to rip Malta and Gozo from the British Colony. This episode in history was the ultimate proof of Malta's geographical value and as a consequence, the RAF Luqa became a vital airbase for the British forces and its allies.

aerial shot of Luqa airfield in 1940s

Aerial view of Luqa airfield in the 1940s, via maltairport.com

Post-war, RAF Luqa remained an essential airfield as it served during the Second Arab-Israeli War of 1956 and eventually as Malta's main airport for civilians. Civil aviation in Malta started expanding gradually after World War II with several commercial flights operating from what came to be Luqa Airport. 

The Development Of A Malta Airport

World War II saw the destruction of both Ta' Qali and Har Far civil airfields. So, the British focused on transforming RAF Luqa to meet the demands of the growing civil aviation. More passenger and aeroplane movements were happening in Malta, leading the British Government to start preparations for a civil air terminal at Luqa Airport in 1956. The two-floor passenger air terminal was inaugurated on 31 March 1958. 

Malta Internatioanl Airport facade in the 90s

Malta International Airport in the 90s, via maltairport.com

The 70s were characterised by other important decisions, such as that of the creation of Malta's airline. Air Malta was established on 31 March 1973 with two leased Boeing 720Bs and flew its first flight on 1 April 1974. October 1977 saw a new and longer runway being constructed to enhance space for all types of aircraft. Refurbishment works on the Luqa air terminal were also carried out. However, since it still lacked essential facilities the Maltese Government in 1987 gave the go-ahead for the construction of a new air terminal along Park 9, which today is part of Gudja. The first foundations of the Gudja air terminal that's present today started in 1989. However, what we today refer to as Malta International Airport was inaugurated in February 1992 and became totally operational in March. As a result, the old Luqa passenger terminal was no longer used for civil aviation but was centred on cargo. 

Modern Aviation In Malta

Eventually, Malta International Airport was fully privatised, marking another new chapter for civil aviation activity in Malta. Malta's connection to international airports in Europe started to increase gradually and passengers travelling to and from Malta increased on a yearly basis. Whether making travelling arrangements alone or through travel agencies in Malta, as an international aviation hub, the island has become a home to various low-cost airlines and bigger airlines which operate regular charter flights to connect Malta with the rest of the world. When it comes to general aviation Malta is also a go-to hub for private jets and general aviation activities, such as repairs and maintenance – thanks to the island's strategic location among other benefits.

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About Tiziana Micallef

Tiziana is a content writer and a mum of two active boys. She's an organisation freak always looking for inventive storage solutions, and enjoys DIY. She loves exploring new languages and has a passion for fashion, which she believes is a great way of self-expression.