Held every two years since 2008, the fourth Marrakech Airshow took place 23-26 April, with the event having firmly established itself as the primary civilian and defence trade expo in North Africa. Kevin Jackson reports for GAR.
On the Ground
The Marrakech Airshow is hosted at the Marrakech Menara Airport, RMAF Military Base under the patronage of Morocco’s King Mohammed VI and as a result is heavily supported by the Forces Aériennes Royales/Royal Moroccan Air Force. The base is home to the Ecole de Pilotage, the flight school for the RMAF flying the T-6A Texan II, as well as the national aerobatic team ‘Marche Verte’ (Green March), which flies CAP 232s.
Unsurprisingly the static display arena was dominated by RMAF assets with all the primary types of fixed wing and rotory winged present – with the exception of the CH-47 Chinook – along with one of the three rare AS565MBs flown by the Moroccan Navy, based in Casablanca. Also heavily represented in the static park was the Gendarmerie Royale, a service that falls under the Ministry of Defence that is tasked with maintaining public order and security.
The expo did afford observers the rare opportunity to see the unique ‘Al-Ghait’ Alpha Jet, serial 245. In 1985 the Moroccan Government funded a cloud seeding programme called Al-Ghait (“The Rain” in Arabic) following a number of drought-ridden seasons. First used in 1999 alongside a Beech King Air, the Alpha Jet has been adapted to seed clouds to produce rain during droughts. The unique nose houses a Sperry/Honeywell PRIMUS 300SL colour weather radar. The cloud-seeding chemicals are ejected from a modified AN/ALE-40 flare dispenser in the rear of the aircraft.
In stark contrast to the domestic military hardware on show, foreign military representation was fairly thin on the ground, perhaps reflecting that the RMAF has recently substantially upgraded its equipment, including new Block 52 F-16s, upgraded Mirage F1s and Alpha Jets and the aforementioned T-6As that replaced the T-37A in the training role.
However; one area of market growth and a sector in which the RMAF could be shopping for new equipment, is the rotary-winged arena. With this market in mind, along with the offshore and other civilian markets, Finmeccanica/AgustaWestland displayed an Italian Air Force AW139M intermediate twin helicopter and an AW109 Power light twin operated by INAER for VIP transport missions. It was announced during the show that AgustaWestland had signed a distribution agreement with Morocco’s Heliconia Aero Solutions, receiving its first order for two AW139s for offshore transport missions in Morocco, marking the first use of the type in the Moroccan market. Bell Helicopters also displayed its 429 model.
Specialising in the upgrade of Gazelle helicopters, Aerotech brought a company demonstrator SA341 Gunship, under the programme ‘Naja’ that it is offering the RMAF as an upgrade for its Gazelle fleet. The company is already well placed, having recently fitted a number of RMAF Gazelles with NVG lighting.
Fixed-wing foreign military participation on the ground was limited to the Alenia/Aermacchi MC-27J Gunship demonstrator, an 86th AW, USAFE, C-130J and a Utah ANG KC-135R, which took the opportunity whilst in Morocco to fly with and refuel RMAF F-16Cs.
One area of strong growth is the business jet market with Embraer (Lineage 1000, Legacy 500, Legacy 650 and Phenom 300), Gulfstream (G280, G550) and Dassault (Falcon 7X) all bringing examples of their products. The show was also held in conjunction with the inaugural African Business Aviation Association (AfBAA) Expo.
Smaller, niche markets are often where the most interesting advances are made and the undoubted star of the Marrakech Air Show in this category was the LH-10M Ellipse. This composite aircraft with its ‘pusher’ propeller is built by French manufacturer LH Aviation as a cost-effective border control/surveillance aircraft with operating costs at a fraction of a helicopter. Already LH has sold the type to Benin, South Sudan and the UAE, with five aircraft operational and six in production. LH announced at the show that it was launching a subsidiary in Morocco, named LH Aviation Maroc. This will result in the construction of a factory capable of producing up to 80 of the multi-role aircraft. The first aircraft to be fully assembled and rolled out from the new Moroccan plant is expected to take place within 18 months.
The daily air display was short, dictated in the main by the fact the runway is shared between the military base and the Marrakech Menara Airport, which has a high volume of tourist traffic to the very popular city only five kilometres from the airport. Closing the runway to scheduled flights causes disruption so this was kept to a minimum by having just a one hour flying display window for the three trade days. The Saturday was a public day therefore the display was extended to two hours with additional RMAF flypasts and the March Verte. Special guests were the Spanish Air Force Patrulla Aguila team with its CASA 101 trainers, which went down well with the local population.
On Wednesday 23 April the Marrakech Airshow was officially opened by Morocco’s prime minister, Abdelilah Benkirane, who enjoyed an expanded Royal Moroccan Air Force flypast and display. This included flypasts by four T-6As, five Alpha Jets from Escadron d’Entrainement Avancé, four F-5Es of Escadron de Chasse Chahine, followed by four Mirage F1EH-200 of Escadron de Chasse Atlas and four F-16C from one of three squadrons flying the type, Escadron de Chasse “Falcon”, “Viper” and “Spark”.
For the expanded opening airshow, and the public day on the 26 April, there was the addition of a KC-130H from the Escadre de Transport in formation with two F-5Fs, two Mirage F1CHs and two F-16Cs. Also a feature exclusive to both opening and closing days only was a short helicopter demo. This consisted of a pair of Escadre Hélicoptère SA330F Pumas carrying national and air show flags, followed by four AB206B JetRangers and four SA342L Gazelles; there was also a short demo by an Escadre de Transport 3 CN235M-100.
Daily displays took place by the Patrulla Aguila, the Marche Verte and a water drop demonstration by a Canadair CL-415 of the Escadre de Transport. On 24 & 25 April the reduced RMAF fighter/trainer flypasts consisted of various combinations of T-6s, Alpha Jets, F-5s, Mirage F1s and F-16s. All of the flypast participants operated from the RMAF F-16C/D base of Ben Guerir, an hour to the north of Marrakech.
The location of the show is ideal for visiting dignitaries and delegations, being just five minutes’ taxi ride from the vibrant centre of Marrakech, with a wide variety of accommodation and evening entertainment available close by.
With over 300 exhibitors and an expected 50,000 visitors, including delegations from many African, European and Middle Eastern nations, the fourth Marrakech Airshow has firmly established itself, and Morocco, as a key meeting place for the aerospace industry within the region.