Europe’s largest fleet of civil seaplanes and the world’s oldest seaplane pilot school are both based on Lake Como, where enthusiasts are preserving a tradition most people would associate with Canada or the South Seas.
The vast lake lies calm, almost as smooth as glass, as the floats of the Cessna touch the water, but a shaking and rattling tells its occupants that the plane isn’t touching down parallel to the surface of the water. “Vai!,” shouts flying instructor Francesco Cereda from the copilot’s seat, and Barbara Correngia pulls up again. The trainee pilot is taking a lesson from Cereda, who is one of two full-time instructors at Aero Club Como. Seaplanes have their peculiarities. The altitude is difficult to gauge during landings. The water reflects the surrounding area, making it tricky to know when to pull up. Correngia touches down four or five times in the middle of the lake, sometimes softly, at times with lots of rattling, then pulls up again for another try. It’s not easy, but Lake Como makes a perfect training ground.
The Aero Club Como was founded in 1930. According to Guinness World Records, it is also the oldest flying school for seaplanes in the world, although flying on the lake has an even longer tradition: In 1913, a seaplane race was held at Lake Como. Today, the local pilots take off primarily for sightseeing flights with tourists. Many of the 200 or so members of the club come to the lake throughout the year from all over Europe in order to fly a few laps on their own or with a flying instructor.
Europe’s largest fleet of civilian seaplanes is parked in the club’s hangar: seven Cessnas, two Pipers and an Italian-built Macchi MB 308. In one corner, there’s a fully refurbished 1935 Caproni CA 100, one of the world’s oldest seaplanes still in service. The club’s pride and joy is a 1946 Republic RC-3 whose bulbous cockpit and slender fuselage have earned it the nickname “Seabee.” The Aero Club acquired it five and a half years ago and spent three years restoring it. A few months ago, club members began flying it over Como again.
Barbara Correngia, 52, currently holds a seaplane pilot’s license, but needs a refresher with a flying instructor because it has been over a year since she completed the mandatory eight hours of piloting. She takes the Cessna to a height of 1500 feet and flies past the hills lined with villas, as the sun crawls along the mountainsides and a lone ship crosses the lake below, the snow-covered peaks of the Alps glistening in the distance. Correngia flies the small aircraft over Como’s old town, passing by the cathedral and over the hangar to land on the water. “Don’t get too close to the buoys,” Cereda warns. The 65-year-old instructor speaks calmly, switching between Italian and English, the language of aviation.
For many years, Francesco Cereda piloted freight aircraft all over Europe for a transport company. When the company went bankrupt, he retrained as a flying instructor. On a trip to the Maldives in the 1980s, he saw a seaplane circling and decided he wanted to fly one, too. Back home, he walked into the small office of the Aero Club Como and asked could he learn how to fly a seaplane there – he has been flying ever since.
Weather permitting, Cereda takes off with his students four to five times a day. The youngest start at the age of 16, but the club also trained an 84-year-old, who was able to take off on his first solo flight after 50 flying hours. Cereda says that flying a seaplane requires special skills: You have to take into account the wind, the waves, the depth of the water and the boat traffic. “You are a pilot and the captain of a boat at the same time,” he says. From his office windows, he has a fantastic view of the gleaming lake and the aircraft bobbing on its surface. At lunchtime, he often takes off across the lake, docks at one of the jetties belonging the many great restaurants on the shore and flies back to the office after a good meal.
Seaplanes are exotic on the densely populated European continent. We associate them much more with Alaska and Canada, where remote settlements are almost impossible to reach without a sturdy De Havilland Otter or Beaver. Pilots use GPS coordinates to navigate the immense landscapes with their forests and lakes. Doesn’t this represent the ultimate freedom for a pilot? “That’s true. In Canada, pilots are allowed to do pretty much anything unless it is expressly prohibited,” says Cesare Baj, who has flown there.
Baj, 68, grew up in Como and has been a member of the Aero Club for almost half a century. As a teenager, he watched the seaplanes land and take off from the 900-meter aquatic landing strip, which is actually an officially registered international airport. “Our runway is effectively 50 kilometers long, because you are allowed to land almost anywhere on the lake.” Yet going ashore is not possible everywhere: There’s no designated seaplane base in the Swiss city of Lugano, for example, which is only 15 minutes by plane from Como. So if club members want to hop across the border, disappointingly, they have to fly into the local airport using one of the club’s two amphibious planes that have retractable wheels.
Baj was the president of Aero Club Como for many years and has chronicled the history of seaplanes on Lake Como in two books. He completed his first solo flight in the 1970s “after only seven flying hours.” The flying instructors back then were ex-military pilots, rugged guys under whose tutelage you would learn quickly. Since that time, Baj has taken small aircraft all the way to Norway’s North Cape and he once spent a month crisscrossing Europe. Last fall, he flew to Malta – a 1500-kilometer trip along the boot of Italy with just one pit stop. His library comprises hundreds of books about seaplanes. One of the standard works on the topic is Seaplane Operations, which Cesare Baj co-authored. He regular receives visitors wanting to learn about these aircraft, recently from as far afield as China.
You are a pilot and the captain of the boat at the same time
Four visitors from Beijing, all members of a pilots’ union, arrived in Como on a sunny October morning. Baj gave them a slide show complete with Chinese subtitles in the Aero Club’s training room. It featured seaplanes in front of tropical islands, Cessnas in Venice harbor and in romantic Scandinavian bays. Baj explains that there is as yet no civilian seaplane aviation in China. But he sees enormous potential for the industry in such a vast country with innumerable lakes and rivers. According to him, setting up a seaplane base requires relatively little work or investment. “The sector’s future lies in China,” Baj says with conviction. Helping to build up civilian seaplane aviation in the world’s most populous nation is a task that would appeal to him. He has already visited three times.
This bright future is overtaken by the mundane present: The wind picks up in the afternoon. The resulting waves are the nemesis of seaplane pilots, so the technicians at the Aero Club close the hangar doors. Cesare Baj jumps on his scooter and speeds away. In the neighboring marina, Barbara Correngia is having one last cappuccino before driving back to Milan. At the next possible opportunity, she will take off again, fly a few laps and practice touching down on the aquatic runway. After all, there’s plenty of room on the 50-kilometer landing strip.
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