Collections: Malta's Work in Progress
- By Tom Huntington
- Air & Space magazine, May 2000
It was the Battle of Britain, Mediterranean-style. During the height of the siege, the island of Malta—a British possession 60 miles south of Sicily—was pounded by German and Italian bombs. “During two months, March and April 1942, the tonnage of the bombs dropped on Malta was twice that dropped on London during the worst of the whole year of the blitz,” wrote Ernle Bradford in Siege: Malta, 1940–1943.
Hitler wanted to bomb Malta into submission because the island was becoming a nuisance. By November 1941 its submarines, ships, and aircraft were sinking more than 60 percent of the supplies earmarked for Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps. As in Britain, Spitfires and Hurricanes flew to defend the island. “It all makes the Battle of Britain and fighter sweeps seem like child’s play…nowhere is there aerial warfare to compare with this,” wrote one Royal Air Force pilot stationed at the Ta’Qali (the “Q” is silent) airfield.
Today the base is long gone, vanished beneath unkempt fields. There’s a crafts center here now, where vendors sell their works from some of the field’s old Nissen and Romney huts, which were built by the Royal Air Force. But Ta’Qali’s aviation heritage hasn’t completely disappeared. Members of a local club meet here to fly radio-controlled models, and two huts behind the Maltese soccer stadium house the Malta Aviation Museum. Inside the little huts are a Spitfire, an Italian Fiat G-91, a Beechcraft 18S, a C-47, an Armstrong Whitworth Sea Hawk jet fighter, a Vampire T11, and several engines. In a separate room is a Link trainer that introduced countless World War II pilots to a cockpit, and a Hawker Hurricane in the process of being reconstructed. There’s also a replica of the tiny French Pou du Ciel (Flying Flea), a 1930s cheap and simple homebuilt airplane for Everyman.
The Malta Aviation Museum Foundation, run by volunteers, opened the museum in 1996. “We were basically the only nation in the world not to have an aviation museum,” says museum director Ray Polidano (Malta gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1964). So aviation enthusiasts on the island joined forces to create the foundation, and kicked things off by rebuilding the Spitfire. During the war it had flown in North Africa, then out of Ta’Qali during the invasions of Sicily and Italy. A gale blew the airplane into a quarry in 1947 and the RAF wrote it off. After being vandalized, the Spitfire ended up with Malta’s Air Scouts (a branch of the Boy Scouts) and later with the civil defense. In its latter life, rescue workers used it for training purposes, wrecking it in the process.
With funding from Malta’s Mid-Med Bank, aviation foundation members spent nearly three years reconstructing the craft. Some replacement parts were recovered from war wreckage; still more were built from scratch. Polidano himself contributed a Spitfire wingtip and the undercarriage fairings that once hung on his garage wall.
The Hawker Hurricane that the foundation is working on requires more work than did the Spitfire. It is now little more than a metal skeleton. Flown to Malta in June 1941, the Hurricane ditched in the sea near the island’s Blue Grotto less than a month later, when the engine failed. Pilot Thomas Hackston was able to get out of the airplane but disappeared. “It’s quite treacherous where he landed,” Polidano says. “I suspect he tried to make it to shore and never made it, or else he waited for the Air-Sea Rescue launch to come by and it never did.”
For the next 50 years or so the Hurricane sat on the seabed until a fisherman tangled his nets in the wreckage in 1995 and sent a diver down to investigate. Says Polidano, “We were doing the Spitfire at that time so he came around and said, ‘If you need Spitfire wings, I found a pair on the seabed.’ He showed us a video and it turned out to be a Hurricane.”
Unlike the Spitfire and the Hurricane, the museum’s Italian Fiat G-91 has no links to Malta—it’s just a cool airplane. Italy developed the Gina in the 1950s for a competition to serve as a NATO ground attack jet. The sporty little jet proved highly maneuverable, and models were later used by the Italian aerobatic team Frecce Tricolori. The museum received an R model thanks to the efforts of the commander of the Italian Military Mission in Malta.
Both the C-47 and Beechcraft 18S started their careers with the U.S. Air Force, and both ended up facing destruction when they were purchased by a fire and safety school. The foundation talked the owners into swapping the aircraft for four big containers that served firefighting education just as well. Another Maltese aircraft that wasn’t spared an encounter with fire was a Constellation that once served as a restaurant. Arsonists torched it in 1997. Its engines and propellers sit in a lot next to the museum.
Visitors should also check out the small War Museum, housed in Fort St. Elmo in Valletta. Its most famous relic is the fuselage of Faith, the sole survivor of three Gloster Sea Gladiators that provided the island’s only defense against the first attacks by the Italian air force. (The other two, naturally, were Hope and Charity.) But Polidano has hopes to get the famous biplane moved to his museum. “We’ve obtained two sets of incomplete wings for her,” he says. Faith would then join the Spitfire and Hurricane in an Air Battle of Malta Memorial. The Malta Aviation Museum may be small, but it has big plans.