STANDING on the shore of Lake Como, you look around and see mountains. Great big lumps of rock coming right down to the water’s edge in places, with a ribbon of less bumpy land around some parts.
Just where would you put an airfield? There isn’t a flat bit of land for miles and anything approaching ‘undulating’ is already in use for agriculture, industry and housing.
Something like this must have gone through the minds of the founders of Como Aero Club in 1930 when, fired up by the rapid advances in aeroplanes, they were desperate to fly. Their gaze must have gone across the lake to the Alps… and bingo! There it is, the water. The lake was not only a natural place to operate aircraft – it was the ONLY possible place!
And what a site it is. Lake Como is just one of five lakes which make up the Italian Lake District in the foothills of the Alps. Created during the retreat of the glaciers at the end of the Ice Age, Lake Como is the third largest of the lakes behind Garda and Maggiore, and the deepest. It’s an astonishing 400 metres deep in places. Sink here and you may very well never be seen again…
Spectacular scenery, lakeside villas
It’s also one of the most beautiful places in Europe, not only for the spectacular scenery, but also for the gorgeous villas located around the lakeside hills. The photo above shows the Villa del Balbinello, which dates back to 1787. Among its many claims to fame is that it featured in one of the Star Wars movies.
So how does a noisy, and not particularly environmentally sensitive activity like flying fit into this moneyed, busy, beautiful setting? Brilliantly, as it happens.
The Como Aero Club has a huge hangar and slipway in a prime spot on the water in the town of Como, on the southern tip of the lake. It sits next to a football stadium and the Como Yacht Club, with whom they are very friendly. The yacht marina operates off to the east side of the lake, while the aeroplanes taxi out to a permanently marked out runway on the water on the west side. Ferries and pleasure boats ply their trade quite happily around all this. For a country which seems to thrive on chaos elsewhere, the Como guys seem to have worked out a very efficient routine.
They have to be efficient because this is an aero club that turns over a lot of business, in a friendly, enjoyable way. Not only can you come to Como and do a seaplane rating, but you could even do your full Private Pilot’s Licence (PPL) from scratch here. You’d end up with a seaplane rating as part of the course.
Today though, we’re going flying to explore parts of the lake by air and have a run-through of various seaplane/floatplane skills. I’m flying with Alessandro Martinelli, a 24-year-old pilot who started flying at 16 with the club, completed his PPL with them at 18, and is now training for his airline pilot’s licence.
We’ll be flying a Piper Supercub, fitted with a 180hp engine and, of course, floats. It’s a perfect floatplane – fairly powerful, reasonably economical, simple, robust and with great visibility. The only downside is that from the rear seat, where I’ll be sitting, you can’t see the instrument panel.
The cameraship, flown by club president Cesare Baj with photographer Dave Spurdens in the rear seat, is a rare bird – a 1956 Cessna L-19. It’s in camouflage colours and has fins fitted to the ends of the tailplane. The Supercub taxies into the water on little wheels at the ends of the floats, while the L-19 is launched on its own trailer. We taxi out on the lake to the runway, steering via little rudders at the end of the floats. These are down for taxying and raised for take-off, flight and landing. There’s a strong wind from the south-east and taxying requires full left foot to keep straight as we head up to the northern end of the north-south water runway.
As we taxi, the murky skies are beginning to clear and the sun pokes through. I can hear another aircraft in the air and from the north appears another of the club’s fleet, this time a true amphibian, a US-built Lake Renegade.
This is a real seaplane, with a fuselage shaped like a hull rather than sitting on floats, and a four-place cockpit that looks straight out of a 1950s classic car. It makes a sort of overhead join avoiding over-flying the town of Como, joins downwind, dodges an awkward hillside before turning for a short left base and then onto finals. It lands on the water nose fairly high before quickly settling into a gentle taxi back to the club. As it arrives at the slipway, the substantial undercarriage is lowered and it powers up to the apron. Very impressive.
Once you have your seaplane rating, you can convert onto the Renegade and hire it just like any regular club plane.
Now it’s our turn and we line up alongside the L-19 for a formation take-off. The technique is two-stage. First, we apply full power with the control stick right back. The nose of the aircraft is high and there’s lots of noise and splashing. It’s quite bumpy and we’re not accelerating very fast at the moment.
The idea is to get it up ‘on the step’ where the floats are skimming across the water. That’s the second stage, we’re there, and the acceleration is better now. Rearwards pressure on the stick eases and we just sit here and wait for the aircraft to reach flying speed, which in the case of the Supercub is a mere 55mph. The bumping eases as the wings take the weight and we’re off.
The L-19 is miles behind by now so it’s clear for us to make a slight turn to the right to give us the maximum amount of room to make a complete 180-degree left climbing turn avoiding, like the Renegade, overflying the town of Como.
Already the view is spectacular, with Lake Como spreading northwards towards the Alps and the terracotta roofs of villas around the lake glowing in the weak sunshine.
We level out at 1000ft and head up the lake, easing back on the power to let the L-19 cameraship catch up. Normal practice is to fly down the centre of the lake, to minimise disturbance to residents at the edges but we’re seeking out the most photogenic areas so nipping from over-water to over-shore.
Lots of drag
Cruise speed of the Supercub is around 80mph with those big floats underneath providing a lot of drag. I thought their weight might come into play, acting like some sort of underslung pendulum, but it appears not. But it’s definitely not an aircraft to chuck around like some sporty number. We’re keeping on a fair amount of power to maintain altitude and speed against the drag, indicating that if the motor did quit, we’d be looking for the water pretty quickly. Fortunately, there’s lots of it.
Amazingly – to me, at least – it appears you are allowed to land on any part of Lake Como, and also on parts of the other Italian lakes. That means the local flying options are wonderful, with Lakes Garda, Maggiore, Lugano and Iseo available. The aero club also holds regular fly-outs for its members, travelling to seaplane events such as the annual beano in Biscarosse, France and elsewhere. They’ve flown all over Europe, from the lakes of Sweden to the Greek Islands. That’s the beauty of a seaplane – anywhere there’s water, you can land.
If you want to make a full-stop landing and moor on the lake, then you’ll need the permission of the landowner where you want to tie up. As you’d expect, many of the lakeside properties have moorings and boathouses but none more spectacular than the Villa del Balbinello. That’s where we’re heading.
This part of the lake is in the lee of a big hill so the water is flat and lifeless, unlike the choppy waves on the take-off area. There’s a special technique for landing on water like this because it’s difficult to work out your height precisely for timing the flare and hold-off. Alessandro demonstrates.
We descend to what looks like about 20ft off the surface – but it’s very hard to tell – with full flap selected and the aircraft set in a slightly nose-high landing attitude. Gradually, we reduce the power and slowly settle down the last few feet to the water with the stick well back as we start to skim the surface. The idea is to be in the right attitude to meet the water gently. It works, I’m relieved to say.
Up ‘on the step’
I’m also amazed that it’s OK to taxi round to the side of this stunning villa and not be faced with a security gorilla wanting name, number, and barking, “wait here til the police arrive.”
After some more water-taxi practice – much easier out of the punishing wind that was trying to weathercock the aircraft earlier – we line up for another take-off. This time, getting up ‘on the step’ is much easier and quicker and the take-off is smooth.
The top of Lake Como splits off eastwards and becomes Lake Lecco and we poke our noses down there for a while before heading back towards the town of Como at, erm, very low height. “It’s OK,” said Alessandro. “We are flying with the club president.” That’s alright then.
As we approach the southern side of the lake we climb to 1000ft and make an overhead join. We’re looking to check the wind strength and direction – the hills and obstacles around here create some interesting rotor effects – and also to see if there are any big boats leaving major wakes behind them. There’s a huge pleasure boat on its way to Como. “It’s the largest on the lake,” says Alessandro, so we want to land before it passes the runway.
We expedite the downwind leg – dodging the rock – pull a tight turn onto base and final in one smooth manoeuvre and line up. This time, we delay the landing until halfway along the runway, though, to stay ahead of the passing boat’s wake and also to minimise the taxi back to the club’s slipway. This time, full right foot is needed to keep straight and it’s only just enough. If the wind was any stronger, we’d end up having to tack port and starboard to get back.
Bitten by the bug
It’s a wonderful experience, flying with the Como Aero Club, and one that every pilot should try at least once. Plenty get bitten by the bug. Of the club’s 400 paid-up members, 100 are locals, and the remainder are from outside, coming back to hire the aircraft or take a refresher course. It has 20 students taking the full PPL course at the moment, with plenty lining up for the seaplane rating.
The basic rating allows you to hire the club’s aircraft but only to take-off and land back at Como. If you want to hire the club’s aircraft and land elsewhere, you have to take an advanced course. This covers landing on different ‘types’ of water, handling crosswinds and other wind effects, taxying on rough water, mooring and more. There’s a separate two-hour conversion course onto the Lake Renegade amphibian. In many ways, that’s the real prize – with its ‘proper’ wheels it can land happily on grass or asphalt, as well as water.
If you’re interested, the options are many. Combine a bit of seaplane flying with a holiday, stay over in the club’s own accommodation block for an intensive course, or try the vintage option – a 1935 Caproni biplane on floats. Most of the ‘ordinary’ training is completed on Cessna 172s fitted with floats – much better to be sitting side-by-side with your instructor.
The seaplane base, ‘L’Idroscalo’, is the only such place in Italy and the largest facility of its kind in Europe. It’s also an ‘Airport of Entry’ for aircraft going to or from non-Schengen countries so you could, theoretically, fly your own seaplane there, clear customs and immigration, moor up at the club’s pontoons and stay over.
This is an extraordinary place, doing extraordinary things – catch it while you can.
Aero Club Como