In October 2021, Aviationphoto interviewed Ray Polidarno, Director General of the Malta Aviation Museum to talk about the museum’s history and their exciting new project to build an airworthy Sea Gladiator. All images were taken in August 2021.
Aviationphoto: You’ve recently gone public with the museum’s latest project to build an airworthy Gloster Sea Gladiator. Can you tell me a little bit more about this?
RP: Now we decided, well we have the Swordfish that came all the way from Canada and we were toying with the idea of restoring that, but in the meantime we had a long running project on the back burner which is the Gladiator. We were given pieces of wing from the RAF collection a long time ago. We also required other bits from Finland so we basically had enough bits and pieces, once restored, to be given to Faith in the War Museum [Sea Gladiator N5520 Faith is the only surviving example from the airframes that defended Malta so valiantly in 1940. It is on display, minus wings, at the National War Museum in Valetta as shown below] but unfortunately we had a little glitch there! They said they wouldn't part with a price exhibit so this never happened. We still thought the Gladiator would be a better option for our next project than the Swordfish. Whenever you mention the Gladiator people always mention Malta, the George Cross and Faith, Hope and Charity.
Now we've already got this small piece of N5519 that's for the identity for the moment as we're still looking for the rest of the Gladiator which is on the seabed somewhere. The bit of the wreck we have was brought up by a trawler and we've already got the rough position where it's supposed to have crashed and we are actively looking for it. Hopefully if we find it then it will give us much needed wreckage such as brackets and bolts and we will also have a bigger piece of identity to use.
In the meantime we have started the project with the wings. We've got the main spars from the UK and are constructing the ribs and are acquiring wherever possible bits and pieces of Gladiator to be able to continue the project. It should take a good six to eight years. We know where we can order what we need like bracing wires for example and the fuselage tubing, but obviously, as usual, it depends on funding. Everything has got to be basically brand-new. For a lot of the brackets and the actual patterns, we've got the drawings, but obviously once you get hold of the real thing it’s much better, like reverse engineering. Sometimes you can only get so much information from the drawings.
Luckily, the relations between us and the National War Museum have now turned around 100% so we are allowed to go and measure up and take photos of Faith and hopefully in the future maybe we can borrow some stuff that we can inspect intimately and produce say pieces of the tail empennage, the stabilisers and the elevators for example.
Aviationphoto: Work on the project began 19 months ago. Can you describe what's been happening so far.
RP: Well a lot of the work you don't actually see it since it's going to be airworthy. Some of the material is no longer in existence so we need to study exactly the piece of aluminium that is the same build or more than equivalent of the aluminium that was used in the Second World War. Looking for rivets is another thing. I'm finding out this or doing that. Once we have to manufacture bits and pieces like, say we don't have the tail wheel assembly, so that's got to be manufactured. We have to find somebody who is still manufacturing this stuff so that is a lot of homework that needs to be done. So literally you ask what have we done on the Gladiator and you don't see anything! But the things that you can actually see are the ribs we're building. Basically every rib will take a week to make. We've done basically half a dozen so far. Even learning how to actually bend the flat piece of aluminium into the right shape, that sort of thing, it takes some time, but once you've got the first couple of ribs done then, I wouldn't say it’s easy, but at least we're not reinventing the wheel.
Aviationphoto: What can members of the public do to help with the project?
RP: At the moment we have this painting that was done of the Gladiator [Storm Clouds Gathering by Chris French FGAvA] and we are waiting for the Minister to accept its presentation and it's going to be hung up in the National Museum of Fine Arts. Once that's done we can actually sell it. I've got 150 prints that are up for sale for €300 each and that will produce some funding but we still have to wait for the Minister to be available for this presentation. It would be the fundraising of the modern type on computer and people can donate from all over the world. [Update - the Minister has since accepted the painting at the museum on November 9, 2021]. For further information about prints of the painting please contact the museum direct on firstname.lastname@example.org]
Aviationphoto: The story of the museum is closely connected with the restoration of Supermarine Spitfire IX EN199. Can you tell me about this and how the Malta Aviation Museum came into being?
RP: Originally we were working in conjunction with the National War Museum in Valletta and they have an association of volunteers that started the War Museum. They came across some bits and pieces of EN199 in a local scrap yard. An initial intention was to restore the tail section only and place it in the War Museum because they had limited space. Then we met up with a friend of ours, Mike Eastman from Macclesfield. I was showing him around the same scrap yard where we found the tail section and we found the cockpit section, complete with rudder pedals, from frame five up to where the seat is attached to frame seven. Mike said ‘I’ve got some free time and if you like I can come back to Malta and I can start constructing a static fuselage for EN199,’ which we did. We started in a garage at home and eventually we outgrew the space in the garage and we acquired a bigger one further down the road but the neighbours started complaining because we were making a lot of noise. Eventually we got given the loan of space at the runway we have here at Ta'Qali on the understanding that once we finished the Spitfire we had to give it back.
It took us about two and a half years to finish EN199 to static condition. We actually had to hurry up with the job because Malta was going to be celebrating the 50th anniversary of VE Day and we were told if we finish the Spitfire in time we can bring it up to St George’s Square in Valletta where the George Cross was presented way back in 1943 and it will give the museum a boost. So we burnt the midnight oil, literally, and we finished the Spitfire in time to take it to St George's Square for the celebration. It impressed the authorities enough that they not only allowed us to retain the room that we had, but also gave us the area. It was a bit rundown but in a couple of months we were able to open the museum using the complete room that we had which was 300 feet long so that was the start of the Malta Aviation Museum.
Aviationphoto: What have been the biggest milestones in the development of the museum?
RP: At the beginning we just had the Spitfire and we had just uncovered the remains of the serial number of the Hurricane. It was found on the seabed between the island of Filfla and Malta on the west coast. We also got the Beech 18 from the Firefighting School and that started the museum rolling. Obviously the main attraction was the Spitfire and a lot of people came to see it and to see the progress on the restoration of the Hurricane. Eventually we got given the other room and we had to extend that and we acquired quite a few more aircraft like the Vampire and the Seahawk and a few more exhibits. Then we had a friend of ours from the UK, David Dalton, and he gave us the Sea Venom and a couple of Meteors and also helped us obtain the remains of the Swordfish that we got from Canada.
We then decided to extend further from the Nissan huts with the help of the Italian Military Mission. The Italian Military Mission works in conjunction with the Armed Forces training local pilots and military men how to fly helicopters and drive bulldozers and trucks. The Colonel of this unit took a liking to the museum and he invented the scheme to teach more of these drivers and he used the land adjoining to the Romney huts to teach these military men this job. After about eight months they managed to clear all the rubble that was in the area to give us a flat space that was big enough to accommodate two hangars so in 2004 we started collecting money for the Air Battle of Malta Memorial Hangar.
We arrived at more than 40% of the total sum needed and already had the hangar lined up from the UK but we were short of the other 60%. Luckily we had joined the EU at the time and we managed to acquire funding for the other 60% from an EU scheme that was helping tourism. In September 2005 we had the hangar ready and in the meantime we also had Clive Denney of Vintage Fabrics organising the return to Malta of the Spitfire and Hurricane all the way from Duxford. We inaugurated the hanger in September during the airshow period by having the veterans visit. There was a scheme run by the National Lottery in the UK whereby veterans could go back to the places where they served during the Second World War accompanied by their carers. We had about 300 veterans who chose to come to Malta and so they took place at a party and ceremonies at the War Memorial. They visited the airshow and finally, after the airshow, they came to the inauguration of the hangar which was a brilliant thing. We had the Spitfire and Hurricane doing aerobatics overhead.
We then continued the extension of the museum. In 2013 we again applied for funding from the EU and we had enough funding to build the main exhibition hangar here. In this hangar we've got aircraft like the DC-3, the bigger exhibits, and a couple of Meteors. The Italian Air Force gave us a Fiat G91R and we also have the Bell 47 and Bird Dog which was the start of the Maltese Air Wing. We kept expanding with other exhibits. We had the Texan, again coming from Italy, but then obviously we had this bleak period of Covid where we had to lockdown and where we had 18 months of no visitors at all. The little funding that we had has basically evaporated paying bills and salaries and this sort of thing. Luckily we are now having some visitors returning, not as many as we usually have, but at least it's heartening to be able to do a sort of deposit once a week at the bank rather than drain money!
Aviationphoto: Are you still able to fly from the runway at the site of the museum?
RP: For the moment yes, but I don't think it's going to last that long. It's taken us about 10 years to persuade the local planning authority to preserve 450 metres of runway. Some of it is being used by the Model Aircraft Association to fly radio controlled models and there is another section that is a car park for a local conference centre. We have a sort of concrete wall made up from New Jersey blocks which we can remove using a forklift. We remove the dividing of the runway and block the two sides so that cars can't drive through at that time and, after requiring quite a number of permits and other complications, we are able to take off and land from this. In fact we have done it the first time we had a Tiger Moth which was assembled at Luqa and we were sort of borrowing hanger space, sometimes from the council sometimes from the Air Wing and finally we ran out of options so we had the Tiger Moth with Medavia which is a Libyan company which was at the time when all the Gaddafi things flared up and all the aircraft were flying back from Libya. They ran out of hangar space so just in the nick of time we managed to get the Tiger Moth flown back into the museum and we kept it there for just over a year. Then we have flown it another time when we did a display during a mini Goodwood. They've got a race of vintage cars around Mdina which is just beside the museum and the Tiger Moth did this fantastic flying display. Then we flew it out back to Luqa a few years ago and we haven't flown it back because at the moment we've got the loan of this hanger to us and we're keeping it there. In the meantime we also finished the Piper Cub which is again hangared out at Luqa and is actually an L4 Grasshopper.
Aviationphoto: What is the most significant airframe that you have in the museum?
RP: I think it has to be the Spitfire. We were lucky that we started with a very popular aircraft so even when we just had the Spitfire and bits and pieces we had visitors returning the year after to see how far we had progressed. Obviously we'd also done a lot of research on the Spitfire and found it had quite a pedigree in the Second World War so that helped us quite a bit. Then again we were lucky that the second major aircraft that we acquired was the Hurricane which again we started restoring and people were returning to see the progress that we'd done on it so we were really lucky with the main two exhibits. I mean, if you go to Manston to see the museum there they've got a Spitfire and a Hurricane so it's enough to draw the crowds. Then obviously we continued with the DC-3 which is another classic and other classics are the Seahawk, Vampire and Meteors. Also on Malta we've got Italian exhibits for example like the Fiat. Even for UK visitors there isn't a Fiat G91 in the UK so that attracts a certain amount of interest and the Swordfish again, even though it's in bits and pieces.
Aviationphoto: Speaking of the Hurricane, I noticed that the wing leading edge is missing. Can you describe where you are with this restoration.
RP: The wings are being totally built from new. Almost nothing remained of the wings so they're basically brand-new ones. We used brackets and stuff from the wings but was missing the leading edge and some of the trailing edge and the ailerons. There are people that have complained that we haven't finished it but in the meantime since we have limited resources we have done the Tiger Moth, we have done the Piper Cub, we restored the Bird Dog to flying condition and built two hangers so with what are limited resources we've done quite a lot. We get it that the Hurricane is an exhibit that can wait a couple more years until we finish it as we have other exhibits that will attract visitors to the museum which is the most important thing.
Aviationphoto: If you could have any airframe you wanted for the museum what would it be?
RP: Certainly any Axis aircraft like a Messerschmitt or a Macchi c.202. I mean we've got the Air Battle of Malta Memorial Hangar and it's like having a football stadium with just one team parading and you need the other team also, otherwise it won't be a football match!
Aviationphoto: The Sea Gladiator is obviously taking up a lot of your resources but what other plans do you have for the future?
RP: Basically we've been promised two other Romney huts which will be erected in a piece of land we've got further down from the museum in front of the National Stadium. These two Romney huts are very important. Like all museums in Malta we have this building full of other stuff which is sometimes open to special visitors and we need these two Romney huts to store aircraft that are still awaiting restoration which for the ordinary visitor might say ‘oh there's a bit of rubbish’ and other pieces that we've got outside that are rotting away instead of being conserved which is something any museums should do. So that's one thing we've got to build these two Romney huts. Also we've been promised a helicopter, a Bell 212, again from the Italian Air Force which should be on its way over to Malta in the coming weeks. I'm already sorting out its transport and how it's going to fit on the flatbed because it's slightly wider. It's got to come all the way from near Valencia. We wish the RAF could copy this thing, I mean we've been given three aircraft from the Italian Air Force and so far the RAF only gave us these pieces of Gladiator wings. It's got more complicated now for the RAF to give stuff I suppose and we started rather late ourselves.
The Spitfire that we've got was donated by the RAF to the Air Scouts in 1946 and then luckily it got vandalised. I say luckily because the RAF came back in 1973 to pick up whatever they had left lying around to start the RAF Museum. In fact at the place where the Spitfire was there was a target towing Beaufighter and because it was in better condition they collected that and they acquired another one from Portugal and between the two of them that's the one that's exhibited at Hendon and the other one was exchanged for a Bolingbroke in Canada. So we lost on that. I mean we had quite a number of both fighters on Malta, you know the target towing ones from 728 Squadron of the Royal Navy. They even had Defiant fighters here in Malta and Mosquitos and all this sort of stuff but unfortunately we started too late. The aircraft had already gone in 1979 and we started in 1995. Luckily the RAF items we got were donated by friends in what we call a civilian acquisition.
Aviationphoto: Ray, it has been a pleasure speaking to you today. Thank you so much for your time and I wish you and the museum all the best with the new project!
For more information about the museum and how to visit please see https://www.maltaaviationmuseum.com/