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Malta's geographical position made it possible for the Island to develop the aviation industry as early as the second decade of this century. At this time, Malta was a British colony and as expected the first aircraft in Malta were to be military. Civil aircraft appeared later during the 1920's.

Ta' Qali Airfield The first civil airfield was constructed at Ta' Qali, followed by others at Hal-Far and Luqa. Luqa Airport's beginning dates to the turbulent days of the Second World War.

In 1939 the RAF felt that the seaplane base at Kalafrana, and the other two small airfields at Hal-Far and Ta' Qali, should have a supplementary airfield which would overcome all the bad weather problems that the other three had. Thus it was designed from the start as an all-weather aerodrome. The site chosen, at a height of 250ft above sea level and one and a half miles inland from Grand Harbour, was very hilly and contained many quarries from where the Maltese cut stone for building. Work started early in 1953, consisting at first of levelling the whole area.

Ta' Qali Airfield Luqa was to become Malta's first tarmac airfield. In actual fact, the new aerodrome boasted of three main runways, all surfaced with tarmac, and a fourth one was left unsurfaced until 1941.

The four runways were:

  • E-W 1100 yds long with 850 yds X 50 yds tarmac strip
  • NE-SE 1200 long with 850 yds X 50 yds tarmac strip
  • NW-SE 1200 yds long with 850 yds X 50 yds tarmac strip
  • N1S 1100 yds long with 800 yds X 50 yds tarmac strip [As from 1941]

By the end of the April 1941 runway NE-SE was extended to 1400 yards, while runway NW-SE, which was extended to 1400 yards by December 1940, was further extended to 1740 yards by April 1941. Luqa airfield, destined as a base for RAF bombers, went into operation on 1st April 1940, although in June 1939 Flt. Lt. George Burges had made the first landing at this new airfield in a Swordish aircraft.

Malta International Airport In July 1940 a small Station Headquarters was established at the angle formed by the runways NE-SW and NW-SE, consisting of six Bellman hangars, barracks, offices, and a petrol store at back.

The SE part of the airfield served as the back. The SE part of the airfield served as the bomb dump, while machine-gun posts were sited along the perimeter. A month later, in August 1940, Luqa became an independent station with a Wing Commander as its Station Commander. A few months later a Group Captain was appointed Station Cdr., due to the recognised importance of Luqa by the RAF. So much so that, by December 1940, Luqa was already serving as a base for Wellington bombers.

Malta International Airport During the war, Luqa Airport played an important part in keeping away German and Italian aircraft and ships from approaching Malta.

Several aircraft squadrons operated from Luqa to the extent that by November 1942 personnel at the station numbered 4350 (comprising among others 770 Army personnel and 600 civilians, including Maltese). Luqa was able to handle 24 Wellingtons by 1941. During the Second World War, the airfields at Ta' Qali and Hal Far were severely battered and civil operations centred on Luqa airport.

The year 1943 saw Luqa as a base for reconnaissance and anti-submarine patrol aircraft. In 1943 RAF Luqa was decommissioned as an operational airfield and served the RAF solely as a major staging post. But it wasn't to remain long in this role because, in April 1948, No.38 Squadron arrived on the station with its Lancasters.

After the war Luqa airfield settled down once again as a reconnaissance base, employing Meteors, Lancasters, and Shackletons. In 1956 due to the Suez Canal crisis, Luqa was once again very busy due to its involvement on Operation Musketeer. Valiant and Canberra bombers operated against targets in the Egyptian Canal Zone.

Malta International Airport The increase in passenger handling and aircraft movements necessitated the construction of a civil air terminal. Preparations started in 1956 and the British Government mainly financed the Lm 300,000 project.

Malta's new passenger air terminal at Luqa was inaugurated on March 31, 1958 by the Governor of Malta Sir Robert Laycock. The air terminal consisted of two floors including facilities such as a restaurant, a post office, a cable and wireless office and a viewing balcony for the public to watch aircraft movements.

Luqa closed down as an operational RAF station in March 1972, for a short period due to the temporary withdrawal of the British forces, until agreement on the base facilities was reached between the Governments of Britian and Malta.

Air traffic constantly increased and new airlines with bigger aircraft started operations in Malta. The advent of jet aircraft decreased flying times between Malta and foreign countries and thus attracted more people to travel by air. With jet aircraft coming on a regular basis to Malta, the authorities felt the need to enlarge the runway facilities.

new runway Soon after the return of the British Services, the Maltese Government started work on the extension of the runway 14-32 [NW-SE]. An Italian engineer, Sig. Mario Marra, took charge of the whole project, which got underway in May 1972 and took five years to complete.

Runway 14-32, extended from 1781 yards to 3833 yards, was inaugurated on the 1st October, 1977. The very first aircraft to land on it was an Air Malta Boeing 720B, AP-AMJ, when, in the late afternoon of the 27th September, 1977, it took off and made several touch-and-goes on the new runway. The first wide-body aircraft to land was an Alitalia DC-10, I-DYNU, on the inauguration day. The first Boeing 747 to use the runway 14-32 was EI-ASI of the Aer Lingus on October 22, 1977.

Luqa was decommissioned as an RAF station on the 29th September, 1978, for which a special programme was held. The RAF's aerobatic team, the Red Arrows, gave a spectacular display in front of a very large crowd. The Air Chief Marshal, Sir David Evans KCB, CEB, RAF, was the reviewing officer.

NOTE ON CHANGE OF runway codes at MIA

As from the 5th June 2008, the two intersecting runways at Malta International Airport will no longer be known as Runways 32/14 and Runways 24/06 but, rather, 31/13 23/05. Of course, nothing in the infrastructure will change. It is only the runways' designation that will change, necessitated by magnetic variations.

The direction that the needle of a magnetic compass points towards is not the geographic north pole. Magnetic compass needles point towards the earth's magnetic north pole. In simple terms, the earth has two north poles and two south poles. Malta being within the earth's northern hemisphere, we refer to the magnetic north being located south of the geographic north. The geographic north and south poles are the points on the northern and southern hemispheres respectively, where the earth's axis of rotation meets the earth's surface. They are the meeting point of all meridians of longitude. The term True North represents the direction from one's position of the geographic north pole. This direction lies along a meridian of longitude.

In contrast, the earth's two magnetic poles are the focus of the planet's magnetic field and these are the points where a magnetic compass needle would point directly into the earth's surface if allowed to float freely. The positions of the magnetic poles wander continuously and the opposite magnetic poles are not located on a straight line passing through the centre of the earth.

Since the geographic and magnetic poles do not coincide, there will almost always be an angular difference between True North and the north direction on a compass. This angular difference is called Magnetic Declination or Magnetic Variation. In a twist of added complexity, the earth's magnetic field is not uniformly aligned between the magnetic poles. This is due to complex factors including the composition of the earth's crust, particularly the presence of iron ore deposits or magnetite. Magnetic declination thus varies from place to place and with the passage of time.

The extent of Magnetic Variation has a direct impact on aircraft navigational charts and the aerodrome infrastructure. This information is therefore very significant to Malta International Airport plc, in the case of Malta. Obligations derived from the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) standards and recommended practices require MIA to monitor and declare the value of Magnetic Variation on the aerodrome site. In particular, since runways are named according to their magnetic heading, the extent of magnetic variation determines the formal designation of runways.

The present designations for the longer runways at MIA are 32 (from Kalafrana) and 14 (from Luqa). Being one asphalt strip, the latter is in the complementary direction to the former, that is, they are 180 degrees apart. Runway designations are declared as two digit numbers. They represent the whole number which is nearest to one-tenth of the magnetic heading of the centreline of the runway. For example, the last declared magnetic heading for Runway 32 was 315 degrees (magnetic), which divided by 10 and rounded up, becomes 32.

In the early half of 2007, MIA commissioned the Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia in Italy to conduct site measurements to determine the prevailing magnetic headings of the runways. INGV determined that the magnetic headings of the azimuth of the main runway now read 312°42' for Runway 32 and 132°40' for Runway 14. These values are decreasing at the rate of 0.08 degrees a year. The value for the magnetic variation is 2° 06' 34" (positive, to east). The results imply that the runway designations must change with Runways 32/14 becoming Runways 31/13 and Runways 24/06 becoming Runways 23/05.

This change will require all documented references to the runway designations to be amended, aerodrome signage to be changed, runway markings to be replaced, radar and control system maps to be updated and, not least, to encourage a rapid transition by pilots, MIA and Air Traffic Control staff to using the new designations. Considering that accurate and efficient communication has a significant bearing on aerodrome safety, this is seen as a major challenge. Considering that each digit is pronounced separately for clarity in radio communications (say, Runway three one), the recurrence of number "three" within the new designations is expected to make differentiation between the new headings somewhat difficult during the transition phase.

To meet the objectives, a task force comprising representatives from the Department of Civil Aviation, MIA and Malta Air Traffic Services Ltd has been set up to plan the transition. A spokesman for MIA said it is intended that stakeholders from the aviation community will also be invited to participate in planning for the transition process in due course. The implementation date for the new runway headings has been set by the Department of Civil Aviation for 5th June 2008.


RUNWAY Dimension-Surface (m) TORA (m) LDA (m) PCN ILS (Freq.- CRS)
05* 2377 X 45 Asphalt 2377 2377 75 N/A
23* 2377 X 45 Asphalt 2377 2377 75 N/A
13* 3544 X 60 Asphalt 3544 3544 100 109.7 - 135 deg.
31* 3544 X 60 Asphalt 3355 3355 100 110.5 - 315 deg.

* Denotes new runway code numbers.

Then works began again on the extension and refurbishing of the air terminal. An arrival lounge and another dedicated to VIPs were added and the older part of the terminal was used for departures. This refurbishment was not enough as it still lacked certainessential facilities.

In 1987 it was decided that the 35-year old terminal was past its days and the authorities gave the green light for the construction of the new terminal along Park 9. Until the construction of the new air terminal was completed, the Government embarked on a further uplift of the old air terminal. Facilities introduced included air conditioning, automatic baggage carousels, flight information monitors, computerised check-in desks, a new floor surface and a new retail outlets including a larger duty free area.

Malta International Airport The foundation stone of the present air terminal was laid in September 1989. Works finished 29 months later, in September 1992.

The Malta International Airport became fully operational on March 25, 1992, effectively closing down the old Luqa airport after 35 years. The new air terminal is equipped with modern technological equipment and advanced machinery to handle the increase in the number of passengers, cargo and aircraft.

As the airport continued to change itself over the years, Malta International Airport is now situated at Gudja although it covers Luqa as well. It is a Civil International Airport operated by the Department of Civil Aviation and the Task Force, followed by the AFM Airport Company, the latter concerned with security; ATC and Met. Office. Luqa is the base of Air Malta and the AFM Air Squadron.

Recently, a number of airport functions that used to be controlled by the Department of Civil Aviation, have been passed on to the Malta International Airport Company to encourage the potential growth of the organisation. These include the fire-brigade and the airport security. The air traffic control was retained by the Malta Government, and is now known as the Malta Air Traffic Control Services. MIA will very soon be privatised by the Government.


During the latter stages of the war, Sector Operations moved to Hal Far and later still to Luqa.

With peace and the almost immediate re-appearance of civil aircraft on the aviation scene, Sector Ops extended its services to all.

Civil aviation, which had flourished in the years before the wars, began to re-appear. New airline companies were formed while pre-war airlines were re-activated, often under different names. Increasing numbers of civil aircraft began to use Luqa, mainly for refueling and stopovers.

Luqa soon developed into a joint military/civil user aerodrome, while more and more flights began to transit Malta's not yet fully defined airspace. They were provided with a Flight Information Service (initially by Sector Ops) which meant that they were informed of the last reported position, altitude and direction of flight of all other aircraft judged by the Controllers to be in their 'vicinity' - which vicinity often extended to hundreds of miles. The aircraft were practically all British or British-registered, and the Controllers in the Towers, Approach and Sector Ops were British R.A.F. personnel.

However some Maltese had also served in the high security Lascaris War Rooms and in Sector Operations, in other than controller positions both during the war and after. With the RAF retaining a strong presence in Malta, in terms of both aircraft, equipment and personnel, the Tower and Approach Control unit at Luqa, and Sector Operations developed into a joint civil-military user operation.

International Organisation
In pre-war days the need had been felt, for some sort of international regulatory body for civil traffic and in 1919 the International Commission for Air Navigation (ICAN) had been formed. The war brought it to an untimely end. Towards the end of the war, the world's leading aviation nations set about drawing up some rules and guidelines so that aviation could progress in an orderly and standardized fashion, within a framework of equal opportunity and mutual understanding.

The end of that decade saw the formation of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) with a section dedicated to 'Rules of the Air', later to become "Rules of the Air and ATC procedures'. ICAO became an agency of the UN. Malta, still a colony, did not qualify for membership of ICAO. Air Traffic Control, and aviation in general, were regulated by the Colonial Air Navigation Act.

Air Traffic Control goes, mostly, Civil
With peace and the formation of ICAO, the emphasis shifted to Civil Aviation. ICAO's member states bound themselves that military aircraft, except in circumstances of purely military necessity or within well defined military exercise areas, would adhere to ICAO Standards and Recommended Practices.

Civilians using civil procedures now controlled aerodromes not required for military purposes. Some aerodromes, as was the case of Luqa, became 'joint user aerodromes'. Other military airfields such as Hal Far and Ta' Qali could be used by civil traffic in cases of emergency. The world's airspace was, as far as possible, divided into Flight Information Regions (FIRs) normally, but not necessarily, corresponding to national boundaries. Air Traffic Control within these regions was provided by civil air traffic control units known as Flight Information Centres (FICs).

The R.A.F. Malta - Luqa Airport Crash Rescue and Fire Fighting Section, prior to 1979 had been the responsibility of the British Government. This section was made up from a compliment of British and Locally Enlisted Maltese personnel, serving with the Royal Air Force.

On the 31st March 1979, after the British withdrawal from Malta, the responsibility of the Airport Fire Section was passed over to the Maltese Government, under the control of the Director of Civil Aviation. The Fire Fighting force then being made up by the amalgamation of the ex-R.A.F. Maltese personnel and the Maltese personnel from the Air Force Department Fire Service.

To these were added two groups, after an internal call from Government Departments for those wishing to apply to become Crash Firefighters. The selected applicants were all trained and tested locally, thus bringing the total compliment to 102 Firefighters working on a four shift system.

On the British withdrawal from Malta, eight Crash & Rescue Fire Fighting Vehicles, with which a Category 7 airport could operate, were handed over by the British Forces to the Maltese Government. These vehicles, although primarily designed for the use of the Royal Air Force, were capable of meeting the safety standards required at a civilian airport.

This Crash Fire Vehicle fleet was made up of four Thornycroft 6x6 MkVIIs’, one Thornycroft Nubian TFA/B81 Mk2, one Thornycroft Nubian TKA/B81 Mk3, one Rapid Intervention Vehicle (TACR), a Land-rover mounted on a 4x4 chassis; and one TACT, a composite unit consisting of a Landrover and a powered axle trailer.

In addition to the Crash Vehicles, the Fire Section had in its fleet of vehicles, two Land-rover Ambulances mounted on a 4x4 chassis and two Bedford Coaches equiped with stretchers, for the transportation of casualties in the event of a major disaster.

Through the Financial Protocol Agreement between the Maltese and Italian Governments, the Airport Fire Section saw the arrival of the first modern Crash Fire Vehicles to replace the ageing MKVIIs .

1988 saw the arrival of the Mercedes 2636 Ak/38 Major Foam vehicle, and the Dodge W350FF Rapid Intervention Vehicle, both built by the Italian firm Barribi. These were followed by in 1990 by two Tucano Fresia F500x6 Major Foams. also from Barribbi.

This was the end of the ageing MkVII and Thornycroft Nubian Crash Tenders which without doubt had served their purpose. In 1990, the two Land-rover Ambulances were also replaced by two modern and fully equipped Ducato Ambulances.

On the 1st of May 1998 the Luqa Fire and Rescue Service witnessed another change when the responsibility of the Crash and Rescue Services, with the full compliment of Firefighters and Crash Vehicles, were handed over to the Malta International Airport plc.

Malta International Airport has taken it into its stride to upgrade its Fire and Rescue Service, for the benefit of the safety of travellers and Airlines using Malta’s only international airport. This upgrading has involved M.I.A. in a large financial investment, money wise.

The Fire Section buildings have been refurbished and modernized, Advanced Training and upgrading programmes for its Firefighters have been put in motion, and the latest installation of a modern gymnasium and Lecture Room have been fitted out for the use and training of M.I.A. Firefighters.

Malta International Airport has further felt the need to modernize its Fire Fighting Vehicles by purchasing three new Rosenbauer Panther FL 6x6 Major Foam vehicles. These replaced the Barribbi vehicles which were handed over:- one to the EneMalta Corporation and the other to Malta Drydocks Corporation. This change has enabled MIA to upgrade Malta's international airport into a Category 9, according to I.C.A.O. standards, for the security and benefit of Airlines and Passengers.

For more information about the vehicles used for crash and rescue, please view the photo galleries.


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