N577MX aircraft crash in Malta: ‘The name of the game is silence’

Surveillence mission was carried out using plane with no country colours, testifying to the enduring military interest of EU nations and the United States inside war-torn Libya

The Swearingen SA-227AT Merlin N577MX at Findel airport in Luxembourg. Photo by Peter Bakema/Wikimedia Commons
The Swearingen SA-227AT Merlin N577MX at Findel airport in Luxembourg. Photo by Peter Bakema/Wikimedia Commons

Questions are still abounding on the nature of the aircraft that crashed on Monday morning in Malta, and its role as a military or civilian aircraft.

The aircraft, which crashed at Luqa shortly after take-off on Monday at around 7:30am, was initially thought to have been a civilian aircraft providing a surveillance service to the French customs authorities in anti drugs and human trafficking operations, but this was later officially denied. EU border agency Frontex has also denied being connected to the unarmed aircraft. 

Conspicuous by their absence are official colours or livery. Air traffic control officials were unable to comment on the aircraft's purpose in Malta when contacted this morning.

The small group of planespotters who congregate outside MIA snapping away at every movement going in and out of the Gudja airfield had been photographing its comings and goings for some time. 

According to jetphotos.net, Malta spotters started photographing N577MX, a Fairchild Metroliner turboprop airplane, in May 2016. The Fairchild SA227-AT Expediter belonged to CAE Aviation, a defence contractor which trains more than 120,000 military and civil crewmembers each year. The company also has a Beechcraft B300 King Air 350 in Malta according to planespotting records.

In a 2 June, 2016 photo posted on photo-sharing website Flickr, planespotters note that the 1983 aircraft had several non-standard sensors on the airframe. In response, one planespotter pointed out how the plane had no airline colours: “Also take note… the missing airline colours, the name of the game is silence is golden,” the spotter says in the Flickr conversation.

The plane was certainly used in Libyan patrols by the French military, but the European Union’s high representatives, Federica Mogherini has rushed to deny any EU involvement in the mission. Frontex, the EU’s border agency, also released a statement denying that the officials were part of a Frontex mission.

Libya has now been a hotbed for secret United States and other European missions ever since the fall of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

In December 2015, a secret US commando mission to Libya was revealed after photographs of a special forces unit were posted on the Facebook page of the country’s air force.

Libya’s air force said 20 US soldiers had arrived at Libya’s Wattiya airbase, before leaving soon after local commanders asked them to go because they had no permission to be at the base.

The photographs showed the Americans – three with assault rifles slung over their shoulders – posing in the sunshine with Libyan soldiers. Wattiya’s proximity to Sabratha, then site of the Islamic State’s western Libya base, heightened speculation that the US is poised to launch strikes on the terror group.

In May 2015, Wikileaks released two classified EU documents, outlining a planned military intervention by the combined military defence chiefs of the EU, laying out a military operation against cross-Mediterranean refugee transport networks and infrastructure. It detailed plans to conduct military operations to destroy boats used for transporting migrants and refugees in Libyan territory, preventing them from reaching Europe.