Malta’s Aviation History

Back in August I went on holiday to Malta, besides the wonderful weather and spectacular scenery there is also a large amount of rich aviation heritage on offer. It was a great trip and as you will see below there were plenty of unique exhibits and airframes on show, I thought it would make a very fitting subject for the 200th post on this website.

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While on the island I keenly read James Hollands’ excellent book “Fortress Malta”, which I’d highly recommend, a truly impressive account that reads just like a well written story with historical accounts tied in with witness stories all while following a few key figures of a testing time in the island’s history.

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Reading these stories from the dark days of war while being on the island really brought it all to life, walking through the city gates of Valetta, past the Opera house, which remains to this day as it was following damage during one of the many bombing raids of the war, the stories and memories from those accounts step right out of the page.

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My first aviation port of call was the National War Museum at Fort St. Elmo, this museum charts the military history of Malta and the various conflicts that the island got caught up in, thanks to its geographical position. The jewell in the crown of this collection, for me at least, is the fuselage of Gloster Sea Gladiator “Faith”. As many of you will know during the early part of the siege on Malta the island was in desperate need of defence, the only aircraft available were a number of crated Sea Gladiators being transported elsewhere. These aircraft were pressed into action and became known by the people of Malta as “Faith, Hope and Charity”.

There were in fact more than three Gladiators on the island and many aircraft were used for spare parts to keep the others on duty. The aircraft in the museum “N5520” was known as Faith for much of the conflict and wears the name today. This airframe was gifted to the island at the end of the war at which time it was nothing more than a skeletal frame. The fuselage has since been restored to the condition it is now in and is saved on display. While by no means the most complete Gladiator airframe in the world it surely must be the most incredible survivor and a relic of the Gloster biplanes most famous conflict.

Fort St. Elmo also has a number of other large artefacts from the siege, including large parts of downed German and British aircraft as well as remains of some of the famous convoy ships from the conflict.

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The next museum on the list was the Malta Aviation Museum, I had done some research on this and new of the headline exhibits but I was amazed at the variety on show once I got there. A Vampire and Sea Hawk fill much of the first hangar, along with the fuselage of a DC-3. Alongside various smaller relics of the aviation heritage of the island there is also a DH Sea Venom in kit form in one of the smaller rooms.

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Moving on to the next hangar there is a far more complete Dakota standing alongside a strikingly painted T6. Two Gloster Meteors mid-restoration what at the back of the hangar along with an EE Lightning nose and a well preserved example of the Fiat G.91.

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Perhaps the most significant hangar in the museum is the Battle Of Malta hangar. This hangar holds the Spitfire IX and Hurricane II, both of which have been perfectly restored (the Hurricane is in the later stages of the process, with hopes to one day be a ground runner) and sit alongside the museum’s airworthy Tiger Moth. While one tends to think of Spitfires, Hurricanes and Gladiators in relation to Malta, the Swordfish played a big part as well and the museum has a largely complete example of the type awaiting restoration. For now it sits as a fascinating artefact lying as component parts at the back of the hangar.

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These two museums present a clear picture of the unique bravery of Malta and its people during their darkest hour as well as providing both the Island’s residents and visitors with a reminder of how their island was defended during the war. I greatly enjoyed my brief visit to Malta, an incredible place with a rich history and clearly they show great care for their heritage.

 

Museum Profile – Yorkshire Air Museum

This November saw my first visit to the Yorkshire Air Museum for a number of years. The collection of aircraft and artefacts gathered on this old Bomber Command airfield is extraordinary.

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The standout exhibits have to be the wonderful Halifax  and the de Havilland Mosquito, the latter of which was one of the main reasons for my visit.

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Of course it isn’t just WW2 aircraft on display, Elvington has one of the best collections of Cold War Era jets in the UK with running examples of the Victor and Nimrod, along with numerous Buccaneers and Meteors, not to mention a Javelin, Canberra and Lightning.

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More up to date machines are also on display with a Mirage III and Tornado making up part of the outside display area.

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The last few years have seen the collection of live exhibits expand, with the Devon and Dakota joining the Victor and Nimrod recently, not to mention the SE5a and Diminutive Dart Kitten, a tiny would be fighter from the First World War. All these aircraft are run as part of the museum’s “Thunder Days”, I certainly hope to attend one of these events in the new year.

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Of course all of the running aircraft are available for close inspection on a normal museum day as well, with interior access available in the Dakota on the day of my visit, offering some excellent viewing opportunities of the cockpit.

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The First World War is well presented alongside the SE5a and Kitten, with a BE2 replica along with an Avro 504, which takes pride of place in the main hangar as part of a Somme 100 exhibition, this aircraft was actually transported out to France to take part in the commemoration.

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With such a wide range of aircraft combined with well thought out displays the Yorkshire Air Museum is a must visit if you’re in the area and with unique gems such as the Halifax and night fighter Mosquito it’s certainly worth making a special trip.

Aircraft Profile – Comper Swift

Three years before C.W.A Scott and Tom Campbell Black broke the record for flying from England to Australia in de Havilland DH88 Comet G-ACSS (an aircraft which forms part of the Shuttleworth Collection today), a very different British flying machine set the record.

A small, high wing, open cockpit design flown by Arthur Butler set the 1931 record at a little over nine days, an impressive feat for the day. This remarkable flight was made possible by the Comper Swift, a design marketed as the smallest light aeroplane in the world when it first emerged in 1930.

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The Swift soon gained an impressive reputation with a 75hp engine propelling the aircraft to a top speed of 140mph and a range just shy of 400 miles. For 1930 those statistics had the makings of a great racer.

The Swift was a surprisingly successful export product, with examples going to 15 countries around the world. Such was its popularity around the world that over half of the entire production line were sold abroad.

Alongside the record flight to Australia in 1931 the Swift gained a number of other records during the early 1930s as many examples made their way around the British Empire.

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With such good form in long distance records and racing, it was unsurprising that the Swift became a popular air racing machine at home as well. Following the first flight of the first prototype a Swift was present in every Kings Cup Air Race for the next 7 years.

The Shuttleworth Collection is home to Comper Swift “G-ACTF” – Originally registered in India. The owner at the time of construction was Alban Ali, who nicknamed this aircraft “Scarlet Angel”. Ali started an epic journey from India to London in 1933, stopping along the way to take part in an air race in Delhi, where he finished the second fastest of the day. Ali’s epic journey came to an untimely end though, thanks to an engine failure over Egypt. This historic machine joined the collection in 1996 and has been a regular performer at airshows over the years.

Though perhaps lacking the status of the racing aircraft which would soon follow in the run up to WW2, the Swift certainly left its mark on the long distance and air race flying world. An especially impressive feat for a small British firm and their miniature design.

The Curtiss Story Part 5: The Racers and the Biplane Hawks

We have already seen Glenn Curtiss’ rise to a leading light in the US aviation business. From pioneering Pushers to fighting flying boats and training up a nations pilots in the Jenny and Standard.

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The 1920s represented a crucial time for the Curtiss company. Mr Curtiss himself retired from the company in September 1920, handing over the reigns to Clement Keys. The end of the decade sadly saw the death of Glenn Curtiss, who passed away due to complications of an appendectomy on 23rd July 1930. With him an icon of early aviation had departed – though his company continued to grow both in the years leading up to his death and those that followed.

During the 1920s the Curtiss company experimented with a number of different aircraft as explored in the last post on this subject. This time I wanted to take look at one of my favourite lines – the Hawk Biplanes alongside the incredible floatplane racers.

Curtiss : Model 22 : Texas Wildcat

In the early 1920s Curtiss had become a part of the growing air racing scene. They were approached to build a pair of racing aircraft to be entered into the 1920 Gordon Bennet Trophy. These two aircraft were given the designation Model 22. These were high wing monoplane designs, each powered by the C-12 engine, providing 427hp. The two aircraft were given the racing identities of “Texas Wildcat” (above) and “Cactus Kitten” (below). Neither aircraft participated in the race for which they were built, with “Texas Wildcat” being wrecked during a landing accident and “Cactus Kitten” being incomplete by the date of the race. ‘Kitten was later flown with a modified set of triplane wings and took part in the 1921 Pulitzer race.

Curtiss : Model 22 : Cactus Kitten

The same race in which the modified Cactus Kitten flew in was won by the next Curtiss racer, the Model 23 (below). The Model 23 presents a much more familiar profile, with an inline engine and biplane configuration. These machines would later become known as the CR-1 and CR-2. Following this early racing success the 23s were converted to floatplanes and entered into the 1923 Schneider Trophy race. Curtiss could not have had a better result at the event with the aircraft finishing first and second.

Curtiss, R-6, Racer, Model 23

While the Model 23 design had been ordered by the US Navy, the Army did not want to be outdone and ordered an updated version of the Curtiss racer. This saw the R-6 take to the skies, this saw a more streamlined design with wing surface radiators, much like the Supermarine racers would have had in the later Schneider competitions. The R-6 set the world speed record at 236mph in 1922, though the record was not to last long. It was a Curtiss machine yet again that raised the bar – the new R2C (below and top) set the record at 266mph. It was the R2C that would see the first military application of the racing biplane design, flying with the Army as an R-8.

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After years of trying to outdo each other the US Army and Navy worked together in 1925 and this resulted in three new R3C aircraft (below). It was the R3C that would win Curtiss and the US Military another Schneider trophy win as Jimmy Doolittle flew the R3C-2 to victory with an average speed of 232mph.

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The first out and out fighter aircraft to be developed by Curtiss based on their racing lessons was the PW-8. This design was first flown early in 1923 and followed the same design trend as the air racing machines, the inline engine providing a sleek fuselage design between the biplane frames. Early variants of this machine featured the wing surface radiator of the racing biplanes, though this was later replaced with a more traditional design. The PW-8’s service career was relatively uneventful, though it did take part in the first dawn-to-dusk crossing of the USA in 1924.

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While the PW-8 saw relatively little service it was subsequently modified by the Curtiss factory and formed the basis of the first Hawk; the P-1. The P-1 featured tapered wings, but was otherwise very similar to the PW-8 until the P-1B was developed which featured a re-designed tailplane and a more powerful engine.

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Curtiss felt they had a good airframe in the Hawk, though it took them a number of attempts to get things right. They eventually arrived at the P-6, probably the most recognisable Curtiss from this era. This saw the P-1C airframe paired with the V-1570, a 600hp engine. The P-6 was subject to a number of refinements as time went on, with the general consensus being that the “E” model was the most impressive. The active squadrons of the time found the Hawk’s manoeuvrability incredible and a joy to fly.

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The P-6E was first delivered in 1931 and remained in active service till 1937, with some examples still on the books as late as 1942; certainly a testament to what was essentially a 1923 design.

Curtiss P-6E 17th Pursuit Squadron

These Hawk biplanes make an interesting comparison with the Hawker and Gloster biplanes in service with the RAF at a similar time. Comparing the P-6E and the Hawker Fury (Albeit the Fury did not fly till 1931) you see two high performance, inline, biplanes. They had relatively similar performance figures as well, with both aircraft capable of 200mph (or very close in the case of the Curtiss). It certainly goes without saying that the Fury wins the competition on looks but the Curtiss does have a charm and purpose of its own. It would be incredible to see Curtiss Hawk back in the air one day, though at the moment that doesn’t look very likely.

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It is worth noting that the Hawk took on some interesting looks along the journey from P-1 to P-6E, including radial versions, powered by Pratt & Whitney Wasps and various inline powerplants. It is without question that the Hawk family of biplanes played a big part in the building of Curtiss’ reputation. The Hawk would set the tone for the next decade of the Curtiss family of aircraft, with war looming on the horizon some iconic  designs came to fruition.

Survivors

The Racers

Jimmy Doolittle’s race winning R3C-2 remains on display in the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Centre. This is a museum I have been lucky enough to visit, though sadly in my pre-photography day so I have no photos of my own of this thoroughbred racer.

Curtiss R3C Seaplane Racer Airplane

The Hawks

As we get to the more recent Curtiss designs the question of survivors can be more easily answered, though sadly the P-6E was not built in large numbers, with only 70 aircraft being built. A reasonable number of these were destroyed in training accidents.

Curtiss P-6E US Air Force Museum, Wright Patterson Field, Dayton Ohio

Thankfully one example does remain. This example 32-261 was donated to the Smithsonian and subsequently loaned to the USAF museum at Dayton.This example served the 33rd Pursuit squadron in Florida.

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A replica P-6 has recently been put on display at the National Military Museum in the Netherlands (image above property of Daniel Mennerich). This represents the P-6’s that served with the Dutch Air Force and provides Europeans with a  chance to see this unique biplane fighter up close. I hope to visit this impressive museum in the near future and can hopefully update this post with some detail shots of the P-6 in due course.

That concludes another brief look at another powerful family line of the Curtiss company, during the next parts we will be taking a jump forward to a Hawk of a different variety, the P-36.

All images in this post are credited/linked to their respective owners.