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Monday, August 21, 2017 Airfields & Airlines » Luqa Airport » Luqa Airport spotting - Sixties/Seventies  
 

Spotters Paradise

We've covered the history of Luqa. But, what was it like, to be on the outside, looking in? As editor of the MAS newsletter Take-Off, I had, in 1991, asked my colleague, John Visanich, to write a series of articles about the airport from an enthusiast’s point of view. Both Maltese, and foreign spotters familiar with Luqa, can compare the layout of the airport then with now. Even though only ten years have passed, additional changes have taken place, and these have been marked, and explained in footnotes. The difference in aircraft movements, is of course, fairly obvious!
        
 

Exploring the airport

Having acquired wheels as my 1967 Christmas present, I lost no time in cycling off with a friend to Luqa, equipped with nothing more than sheer enthusiasm. No air band radios, no cameras, no binos, and no logbooks, just Mark 1 eyeball. I was lucky, as I then lived at Tarxien, so about 12 minutes pedalling brought me to the civil terminal, or as it is better known today, Park 8.

These first visits were the most exciting ones of my life, as they were sorties of discoveries. At this early stage, I did not have the benefit of being acquainted with older and more knowledgeable friends, so I had to discover Luqa by myself. Up to this point in time, all I had known of the airfield was the open-air civil terminal balcony (1) from where I had waved good-bye to my aunts and uncles as they departed on their annual summer holidays, first in BEA Viscounts, then Vanguards and Comets. In those days, the balcony was a great place to observe from a distance the hectic military activity all around, but now I wanted to get closer. It was time to start making my way around the perimeter fence.

The most notable difference at Luqa, between then and now, is of course, runway 32, which was extended (and this is an understatement) between 1972 and 1977. In those days, the threshold of runway 32 was where taxiway Foxtrot nowadays connects Park 9 with runway 32/14. The threshold of runway 14 was opposite No. 2 hangar, (2) now occupied by Med-Avia. The spot we now occupy to photograph aircraft landing on runway 14, near the airfield fuel terminal (for Maltese readers, this location is what we nowadays commonly refer to as ”hdejn tal-fuel”) in those days provided the best location for viewing aircraft landing on runway 32! Moreover, there was a taxiway between the runway and the perimeter fence, running from Park 7 to the threshold of 32, through which Shackletons and Canberras passed right under our noses. The taxiway was removed when the runway was extended.

Another notable difference is of course the civil terminal, which is how we referred to Park 8 in those days, as the rest of the airfield was occupied by the RAF, and all the other parks were used by the military. The terminal building was a very different affair from what it is today, and constituted the large hall which houses the check-in desks, (built in the fifties) and some office buildings and cargo sheds. The area occupied by the Arrivals Lounge, VIP Area (3) and Air Malta line maintenance hangar was in those days, a car park.

The control tower was inaugurated in 1974. Before that, the small tower (4) that still stands to this day over the Met. Office was in use. A tiny wartime tower, which stood near the fuel terminal, was still in existence up to the late seventies, if memory serves me well. Its base can still be seen today. Another airfield landmark, which featured a lot in backgrounds of our static photographs, was the black-and-white-chequered tower, which housed the weather radar. This was situated near Park 7, and was pulled down in the late eighties, its use having been rendered obsolete by modern equipment.

So that, as far as Luqa’s topography is concerned, is basically it.

Airport Perimeter

In the sixties, i.e. before the extension of runway 32, the way to Mqabba and the far end of the airfield was via the road which today comes to a dead-end a short distance beyond the VIP building. In those days, this road went past the threshold of runway 32, (where Crash Gate 6 stands) and gave access to the villages of Mqabba, Qrendi, Safi, Kirkop and Zurrieq. As soon as one went beyond the runway threshold, a minor road on the right took you to the RAF gate (5). This road forked in two for a short distance, and a crude sign painted in black and white on a stone instructed motorists to “Keep Left”, by which name we called this area, until it was dug up during the extension works of runway 32/14.

On the West Side of 32’s threshold, a very wide low gate provided access for aircraft from Luqa to Safi. where a RAF Maintenance Unit (MU) was then located (6). Aircraft slated for attention by the MU, normally for heavy maintenance or complete overhauls, would be towed out of this gate, and taken via the public road to Safi. I saw Canberras, Shackletons and even an Argosy take this route, a short stretch of which still exists and serves as a parking area opposite the new SGS building. I still remember my awe when, one day, I literally cycled beneath the wing of a 203 Squadron Shackleton MR.3/3 (one of my favourites then) on its way to Safi.

Taking the narrow track (7) which starts near the present Gate 7, and following it in the direction of the aircraft bays was where the going got really interesting. The Shacks of 203 Squadron did not arrive at Luqa before early 1969, but prior to that, detachments of Shackletons MR.2s were practically always present. These memorable machines occupied what is now Park 7, and some of the individual bays were scattered along 32s western taxiway. There was very limited viewing of parked aircraft in this area, unfortunately, due to the many buildings in the way.

One item of interest was the Gloster Meteor hulk that could be seen for many years beside the perimeter fence behind the hangar now occupied by the Air Squadron. This relic comprised just the central fuselage section, from the nose wheel to behind the wing trailing edge and wing roots, including the main undercarriage. In the late seventies, the hulk was moved to the Hal-Far fire dump and destroyed.

Old Sun Spot

In those days, we referred to Park 7 and the complex of aircraft bays by its popular RAF name of Old Sun Spot. It was here that one of Luqa’s resident squadrons, No. 13, was accommodated. At that time (the sixties) it was equipped with the Canberra PR.9, then the latest thing in aerial reconnaissance. A Canberra T.4, for continuation pilot training, was also assigned to the squadron.

With Nato and the Warsaw Pact in the middle of the Cold War, the RAF was re-applying camouflage to most of its aircraft, so by the end of 1967, most of 13 Squadron’s PR.9s were in a very clean, glossy grey/green disruptive war paint with light grey undersides. There were still one or two all silver examples around, sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb. But by early 1968, all were in camouflage. The Squadron’s T.4 was silver overall, with a generous dose of Day-Glo stripes on the nose, tail and wingtips.

No. 13’s dispersal area was the first place where I watched military aircraft at very close quarters. One particular bay was just inches from the perimeter fence; a Canberra could not be photographed with a 50mm lens. In later years, I got some beautiful close-up shots using my 135mm lens. Old Sun Spot remained 13 Squadron’s domain until the unit returned to the U.K. in October 1978. Other interesting items I observed in the area included Cyprus Strike Wing Canberra B.15/B.16s in 1968 and Royal Navy FR Hunter GA.11s in 1970. I’m trying to visualise how 13 Squadron Tornados would have looked here.

The Old Sun Spot area and the track that winds its way outside the perimeter fence have remained basically unchanged after all these years, except for the addition of the new control tower in the early seventies. But only memories occupy the pens now.

But Old Sun Spot did not comprise just 13 squadron’s dispersal area, but extended along the perimeter all the way to Mqabba, Bay no. 1 being the spot housing the remains (or rather, the ashes) of a former MIACO DC-4, N6304D. (8) Bay no. 2 is where the remains of ex-Air Malta B.720B 9H-AAM (8) can be seen. What is generally not known is the fact that Park 7 is not this whole area in its entirety, but just bays 9 to 12, and the small ramp in front of the Air Squadron. Bays 6 to 8 are actually Park 6, whilst Bays 1 to 5 are park 5. So now you know why we have Parks 1 to 4, and 7 to 9, which everybody knows, but apparently, no parks five and six.

So we are now on the narrow, un-asphalted, pot-holed track leading from behind the today’s control tower, and proceeding to see what surprises Bays 1 to 5 hold in store for us (provided we don’t fall into one of the disused quarries along the way)! The track was already difficult enough to be tackled by bicycle, let alone by car, although one adventurous enthusiast, who is still a MAS member, regularly used to drive his dark green Morris Minor along this route. (7)

Foreign Visitors

In those golden years the first five bays of Old Sun Spot were frequently used to park visiting “foreign” or non-RAF military aircraft, including many exotic deliveries. Allow me to indulge in some nostalgia – the list will not fail to amaze you.

The most frequent occupants were French Navy Beech C-45 and RAF Varsity navigation trainers, the latter type usually coming over from England in groups of five or six on Friday afternoons to spend the weekend in Malta before returning on Monday morning. Dominies gradually took over from these venerable twin piston-engined aircraft whose ancestry goes back to the Wellington bomber. Aeronavale C-45s usually came over in pairs for a night stop. Other frequent Aeronavale visitors to Old Sun Spot were Flamants (a piston twin with a barrel-like fuselage and large twin fins), and the occasional C-47 and Bretagne. The last-mentioned was also a queer-looking, French-manufactured beast that resembled a scaled-up Flamant. Colour schemes were basically natural metal and white, with doses of Day-Glo in some cases. Looks like I got carried away describing some of the least interesting machines, so let’s get on with it.

Probably the best piece of hardware to occupy Bay 1 and 2 were the four Royal Libyan Air Force F-5s that landed at Luqa on 25th May 1969. Bear in mind that these two bays are just a few feet away from the fence, so image what it was like shooting Libyan F-5s with a standard lens! This group consisted of three single-seat F-5As and a twin-stick (two-seater) F-5B. One of these small fighters blew a tyre on landing, which was a blessing as this resulted in a visit by an RLAF C-47 bringing the necessary spares. If any of you are wondering why I’m prefixing Libyan Air Force with the word “Royal”, let me remind you that this was four months before King Idris, then ruling monarch of Libya, got booted out of Tripoli by a certain Colonel. RLAF markings consisted of red/black/red roundels, changed to red/white/black after the revolution and finally green discs from about 1978.

Airfield Security

A word about airfield security in those days. This was in the hands of the RAF Police who frequently patrolled the perimeter fence in their Land Rovers. We got very little bother from these men, with one or two exceptions, whose hobby was spotting enthusiasts car numbers, or stopping to say something stupid like “You can’t take photos”.

However, visiting foreign air crews weren’t accustomed to funny people poking their lenses at them through the wire, close enough to see whether they are using f/8 or f/5.6, and this got them nervous at times, to say the least. So frequently, we had these crews from Southern Europe, the Middle East or Timbuktu, gesticulating and shouting incomprehensible words, which we loosely translated as meaning “You can’t photograph our precious C-47”. One particular Aeronavale Neptune crewman got so irritated at the sight of tele-lenses pointed at him at six in the morning whilst taxing for take-off, that he climbed up to his waist out of the roof hatch to make an obscene gesture with his hands. Photographic proof of this exists, I assure you.

But when it comes to obscenities, no one beats the Italians. One Fiat G.91 jock, mad at having his mount photographed while taxiing down the Northern taxiway, (9) turned his aircraft’s rear end towards the perimeter fence and gave us a blast of hot gas! I wonder if this was the same joker who, a couple of years later, smashed through the fence after an aborted take-off in another G.91!

Where were we? Yes, we had Italian AF F-86K Sabres in Old Sun Spot, Royal Saudi AF Strikemasters on delivery, Iraqi AF An-12s (no, this was long before Desert Storm) Royal Navy Hunter GA.11s, all shape and sizes of Canberras, single examples of US Navy Vigilante, Crusader and Tracker aircraft, Aeronavale Atlantics and Nord 262s, Italian AF Albatrosses, G.91s and Trackers, Royal Navy Wessex and Sea King helicopters, and RAF Victors and Vulcans, just to mention a few off-hand.

Oh yes, I mustn’t forget the RAF Shackletons, Belgian AF C-119 Flying Boxcars, Malaysian AF Caribous and the occasional USAF C-47, C-130 and HH-3E Jolly Green Giant that also visited the Old Sun Spot in my days.

Weapons Dump

And not on an entirely aeronautical theme, the Old Sun Spot area contained (as it still does today), an old quarry which served as a weapons dump. Nowadays, it is in the hands of the Airport Company of the A.F.M., and used for storing our Bofors L70s among other things. In my younger days, 1,000-lb bombs for Vulcans could be seen neatly stacked in rows at the bottom of this pit.

. . .and to the present

And now I must really dash. Someone just phoned to tell me there’s a Coconut Airways B.737 on Park 9. How absolutely exciting!

Notes:

1 The balcony was situated between parking slots 2 & 3.

2 Med-Avia have since moved to Hal-Safi.

3 The entire area previously occupied by the arrivals/departure has been turned into a cargo area.

4 After having been vandalised over the years, the tower’s structure was deemed unsafe, and pulled down.

5 This is gate 7, the one we use to enter on visits to the Air Squadron and Control Tower.

6 This area is now occupied by NCA and Med-Avia.

7 This is the track we take to arrive at the cement room to photograph aircraft using runway 24/06.

8 Since this article was originally written, the ashes and remains have long since disappeared. Basically, the aircraft were close to the cement room we climb on to photograph aircraft using runway 24/06.

9 This is the taxi-way that leads from Park 4 to the threshold of runway 06.
        
 
Luqa Airport spotting - The Fifties Luqa Airport spotting - Sixties/Seventies
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