The first helicopters to join the armed forces of Malta were donated by what was then known as West Germany way back in 1971.
As a result of this gesture of goodwill on part of this pro-western country, the government issued a call for applications which was open to both policemen as well as personnel within the armed forces of Malta.
The new recruits were to join the first batch of pilots and technicians on the elementary Bell 47G-2. Four helicopters were donated and were all operated by the armed forces of Malta or AFM.
The political decision was also taken that the Malta police force would have no air unit of its own but would instead rely on the support of the AFM.
World Airnews met up with now-retired Lt. Col. Joseph Smith who was part of the initial batch of Maltese pilots to be trained on the very basic helicopter.
Lt. Col. Smith went on to fly five different types within the AFM Air Wing before concluding his flying career on the Agusta Bell 212 of the Italian Military Mission in Malta in 1998.
He explained that the Italians initially brought the AB204, but pilots were wary of conducting search and rescue sorties over large expanses of water with a one engine helicopter, so they demanded a twin-engine machine that would give pilots and rescuers a higher margin of safety in critical situations.
After high-level discussions at a political level, the Italians eventually acceded to this demand and stationed Agusta Bell 212s from 1987 onwards.
During our interview Lt. Col. Smith made a number of very interesting revelations related to some ‘very hot topics’ were often overlooked by aviation buffs.
The first-ever helicopter rescue by the AFM was carried out in 1972 – when the armed forces of Malta air wing was not yet fully operational.
Despite this, the brave men within the unit were called into action after a British man was carried out to sea by huge waves which were battering the western coast of the island, close to the famous Blue Grotto.
The Bell 47G-2 captained by Lt. Col Joseph Smith and his co-pilot Charles Mansueto flew to the spot, battling strong winds and 10 metre high waves with very little room to manoeuvre in such treacherous conditions.
The only thing they had available was a “salva uomo”, which the co-pilot threw to the Englishman in distress. Luckily, thanks to the above average piloting skills of Lt. Col Joseph Smith and his co-pilot’s quick thinking, the life saving floating device ended within reach and the hapless swimmer held onto it until an armed forces of Malta patrol boat picked him up some 30 minutes later.
Often overlooked by aviation historians, it is worth noting that Malta was the only European country to ever host a Libyan military mission on its territory.
This started in 1977 and came to an abrupt end in the early eighties after the relations between Malta and Libya turned sour due to territorial water issues and oil drilling concessions.
The Libyans came to Malta and based a massive tri-engined SA 321 Super Frelon on the island. As Lt. Col. Smith explained to us, the helicopter proved to be completely inept for the Maltese operation.
It was bulky and had high operating costs. Realising this, the Libyans exchanged the SA 321 Super Frelon operation with three SA 316 Alouettes which would be later donated to the Armed Forces of Malta, after a change in government in 1987.
The Armed Forces of Malta, was also the beneficiary of a Bell Jet Ranger II, which the Libyans donated to the AFM.
This carried the civilian registration 9H-AAY. As Lt. Col Smith revealed to World Airnews, this was one of the very few Jet Rangers in the world to be manufactured with a sliding door.
The helicopter was originally used as a gunship on border patrol in Libya. The sliding door would prove to be a very versatile feature especially since it was used extensively on medevac operations between Malta and Gozo.
The novel feature proved to be true boon as the Jet Ranger also provided an excellent platform for aerial photography.
One of the most interesting helicopters, to ever join the Air Wing fleet was the Breda Nardi NH500.
His helicopter was the MD500 manufactured under licence in Italy. The two examples that reached the Maltese shores were both high-time examples and thus their flying within the AFM Air Wing was quite limited. They were mainly used for coastal patrol and carried the registrations 9H-ABY and 9H-ABZ.
With the assistance of EU Funds, the AFM embarked on a modernisation programme that saw it’s fixed and rotary- wing fleet being modernised and augmented.
The latest type helicopter to join the two distinct fleets was the AgustaWestland AW139 which proved to be a reliable workhorse especially for search and rescue operations in Maltese territorial waters and beyond.
Aloutte Fleet at AFM HQ :- In 1991 three Aloutte III were donated by the Libyans to the Armed Forces of Malta. These were handed to Brig. John Spiteri. They were eventually sent to France to be overhauled.
Bell 47G-2 :- Lt Col Joseph Smith is seen refuelling one of the Bell 47G-2 used on coastal patrol by the AFM after they were donated by West Germany.
Breda-Nardi in GdiF colours :- One of two Nardi-Hughes 369 which were donated to the AFM after extensive use by the Italian Guardia di Finanza. The two helicopters had already clogged thousands of hours and were close to the end of their life cycle went transferred to the Air Wing.
NH369 being towed : The AFM Air Wing has also a maintenance unit within it. The Nardi-Hughes 369 were given a new lease of life at the AFM however their limited remaining component-time meant that the helicopters were not flown extensively.
Italian Military Mission AB212 : The first AB212 arrived in Malta in 1987. The type was usually flown by an Italian pilot and a Maltese co-pilot. This arrangement helped the AFM Air Wing to build its expertise on a heavy twin-engine helicopter.
J Smith with Libyan Frelon : Lt Col Joseph Smith is seen posing for the cameras with the Libyan SA 321 Super Frelon in the background. Over the years there were four different Libyan Super Frelons based in Malta.
J Smith in Jet Ranger : The Agusta Bell Jet Ranger was donated by the Libyans. This was a very peculiar model and one of the few built with a sliding door as it was previously used as a gunship by the Libyans on border patrol.
Super Frelon at Pembroke : The only Super Frelon ever to carry SAR titles in Malta, seen flying low over the military ranges at Pembroke.
Smith with Breda Nardi : Lt Col Smith is seen posing for the camera just prior to taking delivery of the two Nardi-Hughes 369 from Guardia di Finanza in mid-1992.
Smith with EFA : In his career Lt Col Smith has flown a number of dignitaries as well as the jet set. Here he is seen with President Emeritus Eddie Fenech Adami.
Smith Jet Ranger : The Agusta Bell Jet Ranger II increased the Air Wing’s capabilities exponentially. It was used extensively to carry patients between Malta and Gozo and also for aerial photography.
Marvic with Lt Col Smith : CEO Marvic Bugeja is seen interviewing Lt Col Joseph Smith on the MAviO TV set. MAviO TV is a web-based platform wholly dedicated to the aviation scene in Malta.