By Colonel Mark Said – AFM Retired
It gives me great pleasure to put the Malta Air Wing Bulldogs’ story together for posterity. Who else is better placed to write this epitaph if not yours truly? I was the catalyst who sowed the seed, propelled the acquisition, and then grounded the Bulldogs from the Armed Forces of Malta (AFM) Service life.
The Bulldogs life was a proud chapter of my aviation career; I also confess to being the culprit who ‘tweaked’ the AFM Bulldog’s disposal report which determined that at least one aircraft should be retained and be presented to the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology (MCAST) where it could be put to further use. Two more were to go to other homes (sold by tender and are now back in the United Kingdom) and AS0021, the best aircraft of the lot, to be placed where it deserves to be, at the Malta Aviation Museum.
I trust that through the next few paragraphs, I can offer readers a snapshot of the Bulldogs’ story within AFM Service. Before threading further, may I take this opportunity to thank Brigadier Clinton O’Neill, Commander Armed Forces of Malta and ex-Bulldog pilot, for keeping his word. Thank you Clint. Lieutenant Colonel Nicholas Grech Commanding Officer Air Wing, Captain Charlo Attard Chief Engineering Officer Air Wing, Mr Thomas Briffa Senior Air Safety Officer Air Wing and the longest serving member of the original Helicopter flight, Headquarters AFM, and the men and women of the Air Wing whose collective contribution will see another jewel added to the Museum’s crown.
The Bulldog joins the other Air Wing aircraft on display – The Cessna L-19E Bird Dog (note how Bird Dog and Bulldog are written), the Agusta Bell 47G-2 helicopter (AS7201), and the Italian Air Force Agusta Bell AB212AM twin-engine search and rescue helicopter (MM81145). Mention must also be made of the two showcases displaying my military ceremonial dresses and service uniforms, the Italian Military Mission showcase, as well as the two tow vehicles, one of which is on display. What a collection! All thanks to the perseverance and goodwill of the men and women of the AFM and the Museum.
The BAe Bulldog aircraft
The British Aerospace Bulldog T.1 (Trainer Mark 1) originated in 1968 as a military trainer development of the Beagle Pup and flew for the first time on 19 May 1969. When Beagle Aircraft Ltd went into liquidation early in the following year the uncompleted second prototype was taken over by Scottish Aviation Ltd (now the Scottish Division of British Aerospace), eventually making its first flight on 14 February 1971. Beagle had received an order for seventy-eight Bulldogs, and Scottish Aviation produced these (58 for the Swedish Air Force and 20 for the Swedish Army). Other Bulldogs were built for Malaysia, Kenya, Ghana (more later), Hong Kong, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, and Nigeria. Starting from 1974, one hundred and thirty were delivered to the Royal Air Force to equip the University Air Squadrons across the United Kingdom. These supplemented and later replaced the venerable de Havilland Canada DHC-1 Chipmunk primary trainers.
All versions have normal side-by-side seating for instructor and pupil, with dual stick controls, analogue instruments, and are fully aerobatic (stressed to +6 and -3g) as two-seaters; there is space for a third (rear) seat if required or an additional ferry tank. Neither the seat nor additional fuel tank were adopted by Malta. The cockpit canopy is rearward-sliding and jettisonable which makes ditching a better proposition than an attempted forced landing into a small field. Aerodynamic forces will shut the canopy forward if left ajar in flight. A five-point harness welds the crew to metal seats, a positive feature validated when the aircraft is flown inverted or is pushed around.
The aircraft is over-engineered, and construction is all-metal. The wide tricycle landing gear is non-retractable. The aircraft is powered by a fuel injected 200-hp Lycoming IO-360-A1B6 flat-four piston engine turning a variable-pitch Hartzell propeller. With a wingspan of 10.06m, length of 7.09m, height of 2.28m and all up weight of slightly more than a thousand kilograms, the aircraft flies at around 120 mph at normal cruise settings, corresponding to two miles a minute. This helps make basic calculations during navigation easy. It enjoys a three-and-a-half-hour endurance plus reserve which allows it to go places.
The AFM’s first fixed-wing aircraft
On Tuesday 4 February 1992, five Cessna L-19E Bird Dog taildraggers (L stands for liaison) were delivered to the Air Squadron of the Armed Forces of Malta (previously the Helicopter Flight) by five instructors from the Centro Aviazione Leggera Esercito (CALE – Army Light Aviation Centre) based near the old papal city of Viterbo, north of Rome. The aircraft landed in a strong crosswind on runway 32 (at the time) escorted by AB206A Jet Ranger 9H-AAJ flown by George Abela and myself. We followed their tricky landings with intense interest as both of us were slated to become Bird Dog pilots. The Bird Dogs introduced the Air Squadron pilots, and ground crews, to fixed-wing aircraft after twenty years of helicopter operations. The five aircraft were gifted to Malta by the USA but came from Italian Army stocks. The late Brigadier Maurice Calleja had stated that the aircraft were bought for a nominal sum of $200 each.
The most obvious difference between the rotary and fixed-wing aircraft stood with maintenance and operational costs. The Bird Dogs were flown days on end without the quartermaster raising an eyebrow. They were up in the air in formation or as singletons and were on the ground only at night and in inclement weather. We were allowed to fly the aircraft as long as fuel was available, and this was always the case. The aircraft parts replaced during service use were tyres and tubes, brake pads and the odd flap actuator which was stressed when 60° of flap angle was selected for extremely short three-point landings. Later pilots were instructed to select a smaller flap angle, and the problem was solved. We did have to change a wheel rim and fix the odd wing tip following ground loops. Bird Dogs were never flown overseas by the AFM.
Powered by a 213-hp Continental 0-470-15 six-cylinder engine turning a fixed pitch propeller, the high wing Bird Dog was a joy in the air but required careful attention as soon as it contacted the ground. We were soon all nicknamed bolt benders, and the saying was, “if you haven’t bent one, you are about to!” Notwithstanding several ground-loops and other minor incidents, the aircraft served its intended purpose and provided the crews with the flight experience and most important of all, the confidence required to fly the larger twin-engine Britten-Norman BN-2B-26 and 2T Islanders, the first of which 9H-ACU (later AS9516) arrived at Luqa in December 1995. Both the Islanders and King Airs have never been involved in an incident, and I attribute this to the availability on the flightline of the Bird Dogs and later Bulldogs.
Bird Dog 9H-ACB
On Wednesday 5 May 1993 and way before the arrival of the first Islander, Bird Dog 9H-ACB was involved in an accident at Luqa. Whilst landing on runway 24 (now 23), the aircraft swerved to the left during an attempted go-around, struck a hay bale on the grass strip besides the runway, cartwheeled in a cloud of dust and came to a ‘full-stop’ facing the opposite direction. The two pilots were not injured. Under normal circumstances the aircraft would have been considered a write-off, but ‘Charlie Bravo’ had an unexpected revival. It was transferred, in poor condition and missing parts, to the Aviation Museum where David Polidano and other museum members rebuilt it to its current pristine and airworthy condition. As far as I know, the Bird Dog and Bulldog never sat side-by-side at the Air Wing, so the Museum experienced a first on Tuesday 8 November 2023 when Bulldog AS0021 was delivered for eventual display.
The Islander’s introduction in AFM service brought a realisation that this new bird and the Bird Dog could not flock together. The result was negative training and confusion when it came to flight procedures and checks. Whilst the Bird Dog was a tail dragger and sat the pilot and instructor in tandem, the Islander had a nose wheel and the pilots sat side-by-side. The Islander could be slammed into the ground in strong crosswinds, whilst the Bird Dog could not, although if one attempted to do so, the result would be the first item on the news agenda. Performance and speeds were also incompatible as was the position of throttle lever quadrant. Few know that as soon as the AFM had received the Bird Dogs, the fixed wing pilots were putting forward recommendations to AFM Headquarters for replacement aircraft. Four of the nine AFM fixed wing pilots, myself included, had flown the Ferrari-like SIAI Marchetti SF-260AMs at Latina Air Force base south of Rome during basic training in 1992, and were truly impressed by its performance. An enquiry for four 260s was not pursued further as the asking price for one aircraft was equivalent to the price of an Islander!
Sometime during the mid-90s, a flight of four or five ex-Ghana Air Force Bulldogs flocked to Safi for maintenance before onward delivery to the United Kingdom. The Air Squadron pilots were shown around the aircraft, which had the rear ferry fuel tanks installed, and an offer for sale or part-exchange soon followed. This came at an inopportune time when the Bird Dogs were still in their ‘infancy’ and the offer was rejected. However, the aircraft struck a chord with the fixed wing pilots and especially, myself.
Royal Air Force Bulldogs
On Saturday 8 June 1996, George Abela and I were returning from the United States after two months of intense flight training on ‘normal’ aircraft. By now we were fully qualified multi-engine and instrument flight instructors, flying both fixed and rotary wing aircraft. Whilst roaming Gatwick airport, the RAF News stood out from the other magazines on the news stand. The title on the front cover had caught my eye: RAF to dispose of Bulldog fleet. The following day that very same newspaper was on the AFM Commander’s desk together with a short-handwritten note asserting what a grand opportunity this was for the AFM.
Less than a year later, on Sunday 20 April 1997, Thomas Briffa, Chief Engineer at the time and myself, visited RAF Central Flying School (CFS) Cranwell, Lincolnshire, with a view to evaluate the Bulldog T.1 for AFM service. We were shown around the aircraft and had access to all documents. On learning that the AFM was interested in acquiring the type, the RAF set aside the best five aircraft. Thomas and I managed three flights each over two days in Bulldogs XX700 and XX698, each time sampling different manoeuvres and later comparing notes. We both fell in love with the type. I flew with two Navy pilots, Lieutenants Dundas and Steve Williams, and Flight Lieutenant Spirit, a highly experienced Air Force pilot who had previously punched out of a plane. I reminded him in no small terms that Martin Baker was not in the Bulldog’s parts list catalogue and a normal smooth landing on mother earth was very much appreciated. Thomas and I also did not miss an opportunity to fly a vintage Schleicher K7 glider at Newark.
At Cranwell, we learned about a Salford University Air Squadron Bulldog which had been involved in a fatal accident during the afternoon of 2 March 1988. The pilot of the aircraft apparently did not adhere to the sortie plan and performed aerobatics at low level. He spun XX712 into Southport beach and survived the impact. The first responder was an off-duty fireman, but he was confused by the two harness releases of the seat and parachute so ran to his car a few yards away to get a knife to cut the straps. When he got back the aircraft caught fire. One person survived. Both the five-point harness and parachute harness had similar round undo buckles which made life difficult during a split-second decision. Our Irving parachutes had a totally different release system, so this problem was solved without any effort from our behalf. This was the only serious advice given to us by the staff at Cranwell if my memory serves me right.
The Bulldog proved to be simple, reliable, easy to fly and had no vices, except one. The aircraft was not complimentary to G-stalls, especially secondary G-stall in a tight descending turn as clearly demonstrated when AS0020 was lost at Gozo. Furthermore, it was better suited as an Islander lead-in-trainer than the Bird Dog, with most of the performance parameters very close to, if not matching. We had found our winner. On return to the Island, we duly reported:
“Should the Armed Forces of Malta take a bold step in designing and building a trainer aircraft to meet its current and future requirements, it would end up with the BAe Bulldog T.1 aircraft. The type is readily available today, together with pilot and technical training, plus support. What else could one ask for?”
This statement, posted on the first page of the Bulldogs for Malta Report, sealed the deal. After our visit, the RAF sent the Bulldog display aircraft to participate in two consecutive Malta International air shows. This was a golden opportunity for the AFM, Air Wing, and public in general to get accustomed with the new acquisition. In the meantime, the news that the AFM intended to replace the Bird Dogs caught the attention of one or two enterprising individuals. A few weeks after visiting Cranwell I shot down an offer from an unexpected quarter of two new Socata TB-9 Tampico four-seat aircraft as being totally unsuitable to our requirements. The proposer was, shall I say, not the least happy with my decision and this led to repercussions. Such is life.
Bulldogs for Malta
Towards the end of 1998 a decision was taken to dispose of the four airworthy Bird Dogs, together with approval from the Ministry of Finance to transfer ‘Charlie Bravo’ plus an undisclosed number of ‘surplus’ parts to the Malta Aviation Museum at Ta’ Qali, and to procure four replacement Bulldogs from the Royal Air Force. Each aircraft was purchased from the Ministry of Defence Disposal Sales Agency for 25,000 of Her Majesty’s best Sterling silver. Although this seemed to be a bit on the high side when compared to the previous acquisition, the Bird Dogs were sold for more and the AFM made a profit for once! Whilst it was sad to see the Bird Dogs depart Park 7 in shipping containers on their way to the United States, the anticipated arrival of the Bulldogs from the UK raised morale on Base.
On Saturday 15 January 2000. George Abela and myself arrived in perfect weather at RAF Central Flying School Cranwell, to attend a month-long type rating and abridged Qualified Flight Instructor (QFI) course. The CFS team prepared a syllabus best suited to Malta’s requirements. After perusing it, I changed an important item related to practice engine failures. The RAF were used to practicing forced landings into large fields, considered airfields by our standards. They could not believe themselves when told our fields are the size of a typical English village graveyard, with gravestones, hedges, and flowers included! The take-offs and spot landings that followed on the asphalt and grass runways at Cranwell were all short field. Unfortunately, it became crystal clear that the Bulldog brakes are as enticing and effective as a prostitute in Lincoln Cathedral. Almost useless for our scope. We flew Bulldogs XX532, 562, 638, 654, 687 and 700. XX638 wore the black and yellow wasp colour scheme. I flew with Flight Lieutenant Steve Stanton, an ex-203 Squadron Nimrod pilot who was based in Malta around 1977, and George flew with Flight Lieutenant Steve Chadwick.
Our wives Michelle and Marisa, and my son Andrew joined us mid-course and we were transferred from the York House Mess to a lodge built pre-war for a young airman, namely the Duke of Windsor, later to become King Edward VIII. This was VIP treatment at its best. Drew got his first taste of a skateboarding between the parked row of Hawks, Jetstreams, and Dominies. We were invited to a Burns night at the Officers’ Mess and were fitted into the appropriate attire for the occasion! During the function we were introduced to Air Vice Marshal Bill Rimmer, who showed a great interest in our Armed Forces. He asked me to convey to higher authority an open invitation for the training of AFM cadets at the RAF College, and other fixed-wing pilots at Central Flying School. George and I were also invited to try our hands on the Bulldog replacement, the Grob 115E Tutor – a German built composite aircraft equipped with an early glass cockpit. The Grob fitted the pilot like a glove, and I felt as one flying it – kudos to the RAF. The aircraft I flew on 21 January was registered G-BYUU. There were always four Grobs and four Bulldogs on the flightline during our time at Cranwell.
At the end of our stay at Cranwell, we presented Squadron Leader Hallwood, Officer Commanding Central Flying School Bulldog Squadron a framed print of ‘L-Ispitfires ta’ Malta’ by RH Garett. The following May, Stephen Spiteri Staines attended the type rating course. At Cranwell he flew XX513, 524 687, 688 and 700 with Stanton. On 27 March he presented CFS with another framed print – ‘The Scenic route’ – depicting a 225 Squadron tactical reconnaissance pair returning from Bologna over the Apennines in January 1945. This is another painting of the Museum’s Spitfire EN199, but this time flown by Flying Officer AS Holt (the artist) with Flying Officer Kurt Taussig weaving. Both prints were made available by our Aviation Museum. The Squadron Leader’s appreciation was noted and conveyed to Ray Polidano.
Flights to remember
The highlight of our Cranwell visit was an invitation to fly in the back seat of a Red Arrows Hawk T1. On Wednesday 9 February I flew in XX156 (Red 11) with Wing Commander Bolsover, Commandant Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team, and ex-Buccaneer pilot. We took off from Cranwell and headed towards RAF Station Marham which was packed with Tornadoes. I was allowed to attempt a few circuits. I was also encouraged to fly the plane back to Cranwell and try my hands at some basic aerobatic manoeuvres and some more circuits. This flight remains one of the highlights of my aviation career.
In the meantime, Marisa and Andrew were invited to attend the Team’s formation training debrief, which my wife describes as highly professional. She was particularly impressed by pilots’ acceptance of critique. The following day George flew in the same aircraft with Air Commodore Prissick, Commandant Central Flying School, who arrived in a staff car flying the sky-blue pendant. Whilst at Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team HQ, I met Squadron Leader Andy Offer, who was leading the Team during the 2000 season and whom I knew well from his previous visits to Malta. His desire to visit Malta for the September Airshow was obvious and this was replicated by his team manager and mates.
For the record, it is worth noting that XX156 had been the very first Hawk to visit Malta, which it did in 1976. The aircraft was in Malta for ‘hot and high’ trials and was captured in its ‘desert’ camouflage whilst landing at Luqa by none other than one of Malta’s most prolific aviation photographers and historians, John Visanich (again if my memory serves me right). The Hawk re-visited Malta on several other occasions as part of the Red Arrows aerobatic team and then again wearing an attractive gloss black livery as part of No.100 Squadron. It now stands guard mid-roundabout outside RAF Valley. With such a Malta connection XX156 merits to be displayed at Ta’Qali not perched on a pole.
On course completion, I made my way to Ginge in Oxfordshire to fly the prototype Thruster T600N Jabiru microlight aircraft, this one being aptly registered G-INGE. My son joined me in the passenger seat, and we chased a bevy of deer across a valley and up a hill. This was 3 February and another day to remember. George and I then made our way to RAF Station Newton, Nottinghamshire, where our four Bulldogs were awaiting us. There we met a Wing Commander who strolled the hangars with airgun carried at ease on shoulder, in search for the elusive pigeons that were ruining his car spray quite contrary to his orders. We were allowed to join in and had a field day. Two highly polished red de Havilland Chipmunks which had just flown around the globe sat next to our aircraft. One of the two aircraft had previously been the personal mount of The Prince of Wales (now His Majesty King Charles III) when he was training to become a fixed wing pilot in the 1970’s. Both aircraft were waiting for a home, and I believe they have gone to museums in the United Kingdom.
There were also ten Slingsby T67 Fireflies made of glass fibre reinforced plastic and painted in a highly visible canary yellow colour scheme. The aircraft came from the Defence Elementary Flying Training School (DEFTS) at RAF Barkston Heath. Ostensibly, these aircraft were underpowered and unloved by the instructors. They were stored pending a decision and “Would we love to have them instead?”. I managed a short flight but was not impressed, so “Thanks but again no thanks.” For those of you with an appetite for aviation history, in September 2006 the United States Air Force decided to salvage all one hundred and six T-3As (the US designation for the Firefly) a decade after which they were stood down following three fatal accidents.
I soon realised that the batteries of our Bulldogs were discharged. After a few enquiries I was promised this would be investigated. The very next day we returned to find our aircraft cleaned and polished with batteries fully charged and unserviceable parts replaced, together with a large cache of spare parts on top of which stood a large sign reading MALTA. “Those parts are yours” we were told. “All you have to do is ship them over.” We took the aircraft but left the parts behind. We were also presented with the CD containing the program which would help us keep track of the aircraft fatigue throughout the Bulldogs lifetime at Luqa. Major Xuereb, Officer Commanding Air Squadron, refused both the offer of parts and CD on the premise that we were there only for the aircraft. Incredible but true. The OC and the rest of the Air Wing technicians had caught up with us at Newton a few days after our arrival.
Our combined duty now was to take over the aircraft and prepare them for the long ferry flight to Malta. Fresh from CFS, I test flew each Bulldog starting with 9H-ADQ, and followed in sequence with 9H-ADR, 9H-ADS, and finally 9H-ADT (AS0020, AS0021, AS0022 and AS0023 – ex RAF XX691/11 c/n237, XX696/S c/n245, XX709/E c/n258 and XX714/D c/n263). The test flight consisted of a take-off and climb to 8,000 feet, followed by couple of spins in one direction and some more in the opposite direction. After that I managed a few manoeuvres, flipped the aircraft upside down to make sure the oil recovery system functioned as advertised and no one left us spare change and tools in the cockpit. This was done overhead the airfield just in case the Lycoming had other ideas. I then joined the circuit for a normal landing, after which another Bulldog was taken over and test repeated. Two hours in all.
In the meantime, the RAF ground staff zapped the crews’ names on the sides of each aircraft, just below the cockpit sill. ‘My’ aircraft was inscribed with Capt Mark Said on the port pilot side and SSgt Vince Balzan on the other. This kind taught by the RAF ground crews made us Maltese proud. They had also prepared ‘Faith’ ‘Hope’ ‘Charity’ and ‘Desperation’ as a token of their appreciation towards the George Cross Island, but HQ AFM got wind of this through the wrong channels and these decals were left behind.
By Sunday 13 February 2000 we were ready to deliver the four aircraft to Malta. Squadron Leader Hunt, Chief Examiner at CFS and Thomas Briffa took charge of 9H-ADQ. Squadron Leader Webley, RAF examiner and Judas Taddeo Galdes sat in ADS. George and Charles Farrugia, and Vince Balzan (technician) and I took over of ADT and ADR respectively. The reason I selected DR was twofold. It wore the red Liver bird emblem on the tail, so I had to fly this one out of respect of my father who is an avid Liverpool Football Club supporter, and it was also marked with a large S on the tail, which stands for Said, my surname. Hunt and Webley prepared one of the most detailed navigational plans that I have ever come across, for the ferry flight. Before departing Newton, the aircraft were handed over to the Armed Forces of Malta during a short ceremony with Lieutenant Commander Paul Miller presenting OC AS the four aircraft logbooks. Mr Miller and Mr Martin Collings of the DSA reminded the AFM team that the RAF were disposing of other aircraft that may be of interest to the Armed Forces of Malta, namely the British Aerospace 125 Dominie, Jetstream and Tucanos.
We departed Newton and climbed to around 4,000 feet whilst heading south southeast. All aircraft arrived safely at Le Touquet on the west coast of France after an uneventful one-and-a-half-hour flight. The next morning Le Touquet was shrouded in fog. Three days later we were still stuck there. HQ thought we were having field day as orders followed in no easy terms that we should depart our present ‘holiday base’ or words to that effect, and make way for Malta with haste. What followed was a very dangerous undertaking. We took off in low visibility only to break above the clouds at great height hoping the sky would clear by the time we arrived at our first destination. Lady luck was on our side and from there on we made refuelling stops under clear blue skies at Poitiers, Bergerac, Beziers. We skirted low clouds on the south coast of France and landed at Nice, where the baguettes cost more than the 100LL.
Our flight arrived at Pisa in 40 knots winds to the surprise of the Italians. The next hour was spent in search of sandbags to place on the aircraft wings as the alternative was to look for the planes out at sea. Prior to our arrival at Naples, the airport was closed when workmen found a wartime bomb in the runway vicinity and the flight had to make a detour towards Latina. At Latina Air Force base, the aircraft were refuelled at no charge. We found Naples in utter chaos, and we could not depart on time as planned. My engine coughed prior to departure from Reggio di Calabria and the last leg of the ferry flight had to be cancelled. Vince Balzan saved the day when he produced two spark plugs which he had taken ‘on long term loan’ from the lot left behind at Newark. The Commander and men of the Air Wing of the Polizia di Stato were also very co-operative, providing us engine oil, transport, and hangarage, free of charge. After spending the night at Reggio, the four aircraft caught up with the Islander north of Malta and were escorted home. The landing on runway 31 attracted many aircraft enthusiasts and the RAF BAe 146 of The Queen’s Flight (ZE701) on Park 2 provided them an interesting background. At Park 7 we were met by Commander AFM, AW personnel and family members. This was 19 February.
Bulldogs in AFM service
The Bulldogs were used by the AFM for basic training, coastal patrols and familiarisation flights, where technicians and other passengers were given the opportunity to fly the aircraft. A conversion course for all the pilots commenced soon after the Bulldogs’ arrival in Malta. Aldo Borg, later Major, was the first pilot to undergo the full ab-initio course on the Bulldog after attending the Italian Air Force Academy in Italy, including selection and basic flight training on the SF.260 at Latina. He later went on to fly the Islanders and King Airs as the rest of the fixed wing pilots.
Darren Roe and Philip Cardona followed suit, this time progressing directly from the Air Wing classroom onto the Bulldog. Both were examined by Lieutenant Commander Hands, a Royal Navy flight examiner made available courtesy of the British High Commission in Malta and the RAF CFS. I cannot describe one’s pride when Hands let us two instructors know that our students compared well to RAF student pilots. The two newly fledged penguins went on to fly the Islander but whilst Philip reached Captaincy on the Beech King Air 200 maritime patrol aircraft, Roe’s progression was different. He qualified as a rotary wing pilot in Italy and is currently flying the Leonardo AW139 multi-engine search and rescue helicopter, also as Captain.
Four other penguins followed suit on the Bulldogs and were about to fly solo when someone realised, they had no helmets, and decided ‘in extremely good faith’ that it was not safe for them to carry on wearing headsets instead! Their course was curtailed there and then, and the Bulldogs were relegated to patrols. In all, eleven pilots flew the Bulldogs in AFM service – Paul Morley who was a civilian engineer, Alex Dalli, George Abela, Clinton O’Neill, Pierre Carabez, Mark Brincat, Loreto Spiteri, Aldo Borg, Darren Roe, Philip Cardona, and myself.
Every pilot and technician has his own Bulldog story. The one I can relate openly to you readers happened on Wednesday 6 August 2003, when Alex Dalli and I flew a ‘round robin’ navigational cross-country training flight from Luqa to Reggio Calabria and Catania, in AS0124 and AS0020 respectively. On arrival at Catania, we changed clothes, commandeered a military vehicle, and toured the city, window shopping for items of interest and gifts. Being the ‘di-and-do’ we bought our children, Peppijna and Andrew, a similar ‘summer’ gift from an adventure shop.
Mission accomplished, we returned to the airport, enjoyed a team building espresso with our compatriots in green, saluted them with the usual handshakes, hugs, and kisses, and changed back into flying suits. We then walked up to the Islander in complete bliss only to rediscover that we had arrived in two Bulldogs instead. Undeterred, we fitted inside each cockpit as best as we could, gift included, and requested engine start and taxy instructions. Midway to the runway, a puzzled air traffic controller instructed us to hold position, and “Amici Maltesi, could you possibly move closer together?” We tucked in closer on the taxiway as requested and then “Grazie, l’ho scattato.” We continued to Malta as if nothing ever happened but somewhere across the Malta channel, is a photograph of two AFM Bulldogs with two feet of surfboard protruding out of their cockpits. Not to be outdone, another crew returned home in a Bulldog with two dismantled bicycles!
Apart from ab-initio basic training, the Bulldog was the ideal mount for basic and refresher instrument training, whereas the combined VOR/ILS instrument previously not available on the Bird Dog came in handy. The Bird Dog was equipped with an ADF. VOR holds and ILS approaches were practiced almost daily, and the Bulldog was as stable as a train on tracks. The aircraft was also utilised for aerobatics, formation flying, photography and joy flights. Formations were flown echelon low, in comparison to echelon high in the Bird Dog, due to the low and high wing positions of the two aircraft. It was the first AFM aircraft fitted with a UHF radio apart from the VHF radio, the UHF being used in lieu of the normal ‘military’ radio.
The only role which the Bulldog could not fulfil was target towing. The Bird Dog was used to tow a drogue windsock at the end of a 600m long nylon rope. The white sock was targeted by the 40mm Bofors guns and quadruple mounted ZPU-14.5mm guns of the Air Defence Battery at Pembroke ranges. The towing kit was later modified and put on the Islander as there was no space for it on the Bulldog. As already mentioned, the Bulldog was easy to handle, the only negative aspect was attributed to the full-blown clear canopy which made life unbearable when flown under a blazing sun. The canopy could be opened four notches, and this helped circulate air but was never a full compromise. Flying with parachute, flying suit and helmet was the order of the day, although Paul Morley being the perfect Englishman, preferred blue trousers, white shirt with tie and a headset.
An incident and an accident
During the early morning of Saturday 16 July 2005, Captain Pierre Carabez with Harold Titley in the passenger seat, was taxing AS0022 out of Park 7 on taxiway Quebec when he noticed a vehicle closing in at high speed from the opposite direction. He attempted a quick engine shut down, but the aircraft propeller revolved a couple of more times, slicing through the passenger door as it did so. Luck was on everyone’s side as the van driver was the only one in the vehicle. He claimed that he could not see the aircraft against the rising sun and in all fairness, I believe him. Again, it was not Pierre’s fault, and the aircraft was repaired by the AW technicians helped by none other than Malta Aviation Museum guru David Polidano, who is now leading the museum’s Gloster Sea Gladiator project.
During the evening of Sunday 5 August 2007, whilst Malta was celebrating the Transfiguration of Our Lord, Bulldog AS0020 was involved in a very serious accident which could have had serious consequences. Whilst on a sunset patrol, the pilot commenced to turn over the sea to investigate a group of persons who were waving from the cliff top at Wied ir-Raghab (west of near San Dimitri Point), north of Gozo. When passing over the cliff edge at a steep angle of bank, the aircraft starboard tip navigation light struck a metal bird trap contraption, standing a meter high above the ground. The wing tip then struck the surface and the aircraft cartwheeled clockwise several times until it flipped upside down and skidded a hundred meters or so across rough ground, coming to a full stop less than fifty meters from a three-hundred-foot cliff edge. That would have been one exciting drop and splash. Warrant Officer Mark Brincat and his passenger, technician Bombardier Kevin Borg, escaped unscathed from under the aircraft wreck, with only a scratch and bruise mark – a miracle if ever there was one. Our Lord, Our Lady of Ta’ Pinu and all the Saints in Gozo worked overtime that evening. The aircraft was a complete write-off. The engine detached from its mountings with the exhaust manifold findings its way in the cockpit without injuring the crew. The aircraft or shall we say what was left of it, was transported unceremoniously by truck to the Air Defence Battery grounds at Luqa. The Board concluded the investigation, and Mark was exonerated. He continued to fly until retirement.
International Air Tattoo
The Air Wing fixed wing flight was invited to attend the International Air Tattoo at RAF Cottesmore which was being organised over three days in July 2001. The air show theme was ‘Women in Aviation’ which made the trip the more exciting. The Islander, a Bulldog and their ‘all male’ crews were spit and polished in preparation for the prodigal sons return to the UK. There was great expectation amongst the UK aircraft enthusiast who were looking forward to photographing the British kites wearing AFM roundels. The round trip was an exhilarating experience with long flights over the sea and stops in Palermo, Cagliari, and Ajaccio before continuing northwards across France. Other events at Cottesmore made our trip one to relate to our grandchildren – group photographs with foreign crews wearing lipstick, the Islander ‘theft’ at night to make way for a larger aircraft, and Mark Brincat’s brush with the RAF Police and his arrest, resulting in the temporary closure of the base Officers’ Mess! Please don’t ask.
Whilst we were at Cottesmore, George Abela picked up the fifth Bulldog from RAF Shawsbury in Shropshire. AS0124 was meant to be a ‘spares’ aircraft and was nicknamed ‘l-Invel’ (The spirit level) by George himself after he was instructed to fly the aircraft straight and level since it was ‘high on fatigue’. “Any abrupt turns and it may wrap around you George!” George caught up with our small formation returning home at Le Touquet bearing the hallmarks of a man walking to the gallows. When no one offered to replace seats on any leg, his response was to curse his way to Malta. Somehow this aircraft, although limited in flight, logged the highest number of hours at the Air Wing. The more we begged for it to be grounded, the more it became readily available on the flightline. It now resides at MCAST, where hopefully it will never fly again.
Time to bid farewell.
Three pilots including myself had been tasked with flying CASA-212-200 Aviocar AS0925 of CAE Aviation (previously Swedish Coast Guard) during the summer of 2009. Starting mid-2010 all pilots, technicians, mission system operators and admin staff were gearing up in preparation of the first of three new Beech King Air B200 (D-IMPA AS1126) which was due to arrive at Luqa during the second month of 2011. By the end of 2013, the fixed wing pilots were being worn out flying two Islanders and the first King Air, day-in day-out on patrol as well as search and rescue missions to the south of the Islands. This was a time when flight time limitations were a misnomer in the AFM. There was also a technical requirement to remove Avgas from the equation. Wings had to be clipped and a decision was taken to ground the Bulldog fleet in the interest of safety. It was my duty as Commanding Officer to issue this final order and I do not regret it. Before we accomplished this, every pilot was allowed one last flight in the Bulldog. “Do as you please but don’t you dare break it!”
By right, I carried out the very last Bulldog flight on Wednesday 23 October 2013, 26 years to the date after attaining my pilots’ wings, and recorded the following in my logbook:
AS0021 11:00 to 12:00 Last Bulldog Flight. Onwards to the Museum!
After the first King Air settled in Malta, it became obvious that the requirement for a lead-in trainer still existed, as had been the case with the Bulldogs and Islanders. At the time we looked at the Grob G 120TP as a possible Bulldog replacement and lead-in trainer. The demonstrator was flown to Malta. This aircraft is powered by the same 320 SHP Allison (Rolls-Royce) 250-B-17C turbo-prop engine as fitted on the Islander. Ab-initio pilots could easily hop from the trainer to the Islander and after attaining adequate hours and experience, the King Air. Options for purchase or lease were on the table. This carbon fibre aircraft, with its glass cockpit and phenomenal performance was well received by the Air Wing pilots and technicians but all efforts to procure at least two fell through. In the meantime, on 11 November 2011 to be exact, I taxied the first Islander aircraft in AFM service, the piston engine Islander (again AVGAS 100LL), to the far end of Park 7. No one had the time to fly this aircraft with the turbine Islander and new King Airs around. It has stood down ever since in the hope that one day ‘Alpha Sierra One-Niner’ may finally be put up for sale or better still grace our museum.
Before retiring from the Armed Forces of Malta at the end of April 2015, I gave it one last shot and endeavoured to acquire for the Air Wing T-34C Turbo Mentor two-seat trainers from surplus United States military stocks. The previous acquisition of the Bird Dogs at a nominal price was used as a precedent and the deal was very close to being repeated. Lieutenant Commander Philip Webb USN, military attaché and a friend of the Air Wing and aviation museum was instrumental in pushing forward our request. A few weeks before a team from Malta departed for the Aircraft Maintenance and Regeneration Centre facilities in the US, to inspect four aircraft, a spare airframe, a spare Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6 turbine-engine (which would also have fitted our King Airs nicely), additional spare parts and training package, the deal was met with ‘friendly’ fire and was shot down. The AFM was only interested in new equipment I was told. These aircraft would have complemented the King Airs like Lego blocks, providing the AFM’s fixed wing penguins, valuable hours, and flight experience. Six months later the Maritime Squadron took delivery of a 50-year-old Irish offshore patrol vessel, and ladies and gentlemen, there goes our love for Guinness and not Budweiser. By then I was enjoying my well-earned retirement and missed the invitation to attend the official handing over ceremony of this emerald jewel.
Now where was I? Ah yes. It is time the Museum Foundation sets up a Malta Historic Flight with a view to preserve and display the airworthy and ground running aircraft, as types continue to add up. It is also high time the Bulldog pilots pay the museum a visit to inscribe their names in gold on their previous mount, and to celebrate an old friend with a schooner or two of sherry. The time has now truly come for the old dogs to retire.