11 May 2014

LIFE: Romantic Como, Blue Water and Seaplanes

CHIAVARI, Italy - Sometimes, when I go poking around in places I probably should not be in, I get into trouble. But I’ve never quite been able to break that habit. I think it’s because sometimes I find stuff, and if I’m poking around in a place that I think I know and I come upon something totally unexpected, well, that just fuels my poking around habit. Take the day I was poking around Como, thinking about going into the Como Yacht Club when I saw something totally unexpected. It was a seaplane and it was heading straight for me. Or at least it looked that way. And that was when I found the Aero Club Como.
 Busy Day Aero Club Como, Italy
I soon learned that the Aero Club Como is the largest seaplane facility and flight school in Europe. It is also the oldest seaplane operation in the world, a record certified by the Guinness Book of World. Records. Como is no stranger to seaplanes. One of the earliest seaplane gatherings and contests took place here in 1913, the "Gran Premio dei Laghi", and this is still the only lake where regular seaplane activity continues today.  

There were some days when the lake was just its quiet, beautiful blue self, with just enough of a ripple to let you know it was there. And that was fine. But the days I really loved were when the sea planes were taking off and landing over and over again – pilots practicing the graceful art of landing on water.
 Restored Hydravione
It must be tricky trying to land a plane on water. I can imagine new pilots getting a little spooked wondering whether they are going to land like a sea gull or nose dive straight into the lake. As far as I know, no one has ever nosed dived into the water for Lake Como is actually ideal for seaplane training. At 29 miles (47 km) long, and in some places 2.5 miles (4km) wide, it’s a perfect, natural runway. And it’s hard to miss for it sits between tall limestone and granite mountains, mountains that reach upward 2,000 feet (3/4 miles) to the south and more than 8,000 feet (1.5 miles) upward in the northeast, creating a natural corridor. 

The Aero Club Como has over 100 members, but three times that number flock to Como to fly seaplanes. For 150 euros ($200 USD) you can have access to an entire fleet of seaplanes from Cessna 172’s to the Lake Buccaneer, which Club president Cesare Baj claims is the only flying boat for rent in the world.
Just a Little Check-Up
Many airline pilots stuck in Milan waiting for reassignment or rides back to their home countries stumble upon the Club as they wander around Como, just as I did.  And they are just as flabbergasted as I was to find a hanger full of seaplanes practically in the center of town. But they don’t sit and watch as I did, they sign up for training and because they are profession pilots, it only takes a few hours before they are able to fly solo. Then they are hooked on seaplanes and come back time and time again, usually bringing other pilots and friends with them.

Many of today’s pilots got their training during their military service. During World I and II almost every country bordering on water used seaplanes in one military capacity or another. They were used for everything from recovering downed airmen to anti-submarine patrol to air-sea rescue and gunfire spotting.
 Restored Aerodrome
There were also a few attempts to start commercial seaplane service, but after World War II, when the number and length of land based runways increased, and the speed and range of land-based aircraft also increased, the seaplane lost is competitive edge. 

In 1948, one British company, Aquila Airways of Southampton, began offering flights to Madeira, Las Palmas, Jersey, Majorca, Marseille, Capri, Genoa, Montreux and Santa Margherita Ligure. A few years later it offered scheduled flights to and from Southampton to Edinburgh and Glasgow and charter flights to as far away as the Falkland Islands. Aquila Airways closed its doors in 1958, but seaplanes are still used in Great Britain and other countries around the world for search and rescue operations as well as fire-fighting duties. 
 Inside the Hangar
In the early days of aviation, seaplanes were very much in vogue. At one time there were more than 100 seaplane ports in Italy and the Aero Club of Como is working to have some of them reopened. Truthfully, if they offered seaplane service from Santa Margherita Ligure, or better yet Chiavari to Lake Como, I wouldn’t hesitate for a second. I can’t think of a more exciting way to travel.

Seaplanes, or water flying as it was called in the early 1930’s, captured everyone’s imagination. According to a 1931 edition of Popular Mechanics Magazine, the best thing to do if you were planning to take up water flying, is learn how to sail a boat. Hours spent tacking back and forth on a lake or a river would make an expert pilot of you. It would give you the effects of wind and currents, and save you hours of time when you start flying.  
Wanna Go for a Ride?
Of course that was back in the day before sophisticated communication equipment and I think the author foresaw seaplanes being stranded on a body of water and having to use sailing techniques to get back to safety.

The present fleet of Aero Club Como is made up of 4 Cessna 172s with 160 HP engines and Edo 2130 floats, a Cessna C172 XP on Wipline 2350 amphibious floats and EDO 2440 straight floats, a Piper PA 18 with 180 HP engine on Wipaire 2100 amphibious floats, a Lake LA200 "EP", a Cessna 206 on Wipline 3730 amphibious and PK 3500 straight floats.
Beautiful, Simply Beautiful
The fleet of vintage seaplanes includes a Cessna C305 C "Birddog" on Edo 2440 floats, a Republic RC-3 "Seabee" with the Simulflight 270 HP conversion and a Macchi MB 308 on her original wooden floats made at the Macchi factory by the team who designed the record winner MC 72. I don’t pretend to understand what any of this means, and I only put this information in for those of you who know much more about this than I do.

I do know you can rent seaplanes by the hour or just take a ride in one. Here is all the contact information you’ll need for prices and hours etc:

Aero Club Como
Viale Masia 44
Como, 22100 Italy
Contact: Fulvia - Valentina 
+39 031 574495(tel); +39 335 7232783 (cell); +39 031 570333 (fax)
Email: info@aeroclubcomo.com
Web: www.aeroclubcomo.com

If you are in Como in June, on the Summer Solstice, come and join the festivities as the Aero Club puts on its annual celebration. All the club’s planes are up flying until the last bit of sunshine disappears behind the mountains. And even though the locals are used to sea planes taxiing across the narrow street from the club’s hangar to the docks they still come out to celebrate along with hundreds of others and enjoy the lake, the spectacle of the seaplanes, the food and sometimes even some live music. I hope to be there this year too.

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