Postcards

Splashdowns on Italy's Lake Como

November 1, 1999

Earning sea wings on Europe's deepest lake

If there is a more beautiful place in the world than Lake Como to learn to fly seaplanes, it is hard for me to imagine it. The lake, the deepest in Europe, is nestled among the foothills of the Alps near Italy's northern border. Its shores, which rise steeply to more than 5,000 feet above the surface of the lake, are dotted by grand eighteenth- and nineteenth-century villas with elaborate gardens. The vegetation is lush because of the lake's sheltered position, and palm and citrus trees grow on its shores.

Aeroclub Como makes obtaining a seaplane rating so convenient for the foreign visitor that it was hard for me to resist. The club offers instruction in English and will arrange to have an American pilot's certificate validated by the Italian aviation authority (Ministero dei Trasorti e della Navigazione) for flying airplanes of Italian registry. Best of all, the club offers that rarest of seaplane services - rentals. It will rent you a seaplane to use on your own after you have obtained a seaplane rating.

Aeroclub Como has been in existence since 1930 and is the only seaplane school in Europe. It qualifies 40 to 50 pilots a year as seaplane pilots (Italian certificates). The majority of students are foreign, mostly from other European countries. Americans are rare visitors; most often they go to rent seaplanes rather than to obtain the rating. The school also offers primary pilot training (in seaplanes), turning out about 15 new pilots a year. The seaplane fleet includes two Piper Super Cubs, two Cessna 172s, a Lake 250, and a Lake 4-200.

The club is located in downtown Como on the southern shore of the lake. Waterway 1/19 is aligned with the long axis of the narrow lake. Waterway 1 is preferred for takeoffs and Waterway 19 for landings, to avoid overflight of the city. The traffic pattern for Waterway 1 requires skirting the hills of the eastern shore on downwind and turning base abeam the city's fifteenth-century cathedral. Steep hills close by to the southwest require a dogleg final. The tightly ringed hills loom even higher when you are headed toward them; they never failed to increase my pulse rate a bit on takeoff from Waterway 19.

I spent part of my stay on Lake Como at the elegant and comfortable Hotel Terminus on the lakefront in Como, a 10-minute stroll from the Aeroclub. Double rooms cost $125 to $175 a night. Similarly priced and also close to the Aeroclub is the Hotel Metropole Suisse. For those for whom the price is not an obstacle, the renowned Hotel Villa d'Este is just a few miles north of the Aeroclub on the western lakeshore in Cernobbio. Landing traffic on Waterway 19 turns final just south of the villa's extensive gardens. The Villa d'Este dates back to the sixteenth century and housed English and Russian royalty at various times in its prehotel history. As you might expect of such a place, everything is in grand style. Double rooms begin at about $400. Slightly farther to the north in the village of Moltrasio is the Grand Hotel Imperiale with very attractive and comfortable rooms, some directly on the lake. Double rooms cost $135 to $200. The staff at all of these hotels speak English.

My seaplane training began with an hour-long briefing with instructor Andrea Pullano on taxiing, landing, and taking off in various conditions of wind and waves. Having had little sleep on the transatlantic flight the night before, my jet-lagged brain was not in top condition to absorb a lot of new information, and I was glad that I had done some reading about seaplanes the week before my trip. Preflighting Cessna 172 I-BISB followed. The seaplane was tied up at the dock, and preflighting meant stepping out onto the floats. The biggest preflighting difference between a seaplane and a landplane is that with a seaplane you risk falling into the water. I was prepared: washable clothes, eyeglasses secured with a loop around my neck, boat shoes, and no wallet. In addition to the routine preflight of a 172, the floats and their supports are checked for structural integrity and the floats are pumped out. Each float has six compartments that must be pumped by means of a one-person-power bilge pump. One quickly acquires more skill and experience at this task than is required for the rating.

Aside from having to be sure that the water rudders are down, startup is routine. The seaplane is immediately on the go, however. There is no handbrake to set while you do your runup. Pullano gave me a quick lesson in reading the wind from the nearby clues: the water surface, the heading of moored boats, and the direction toward which the water falls from the large ornamental fountain on the eastern shore (the windsock gets little attention from pilots).

I taxied into position on the northbound waterway and raised the water rudders. As I hesitated for just a moment to think "What have I left out?" the plane weathervaned into the wind crossing from the west. I had to be ready to apply takeoff power as soon as the rudders were up. I got it right the second time, and Pullano demonstrated on the takeoff run how the airplane loses speed if the nose is held either too high or too low. We climbed to 2,000 feet, and Pullano demonstrated how the seaplane flies like a landplane by having me do some turns. He laughed when I increased the bank to 45 degrees to narrow the turning radius as I caught sight of the craggy hills coming back into my field of vision on the first three-sixty. Routine landings aren't much different from landing on a hard runway. As we came close to touching the water, I made a point to remind myself that the airplane sits high, as if on stilts. The nose is maintained level with the horizon until touchdown to keep the front tips of the floats from digging into the waves.

Glassy-water landings are intimidating at first. Pullano demonstrated one; then it was my turn. To compensate for the fact that we could not accurately judge our height above a glassy surface, we assumed touchdown attitude at about 150 feet above the lake and descended at 45 knots, losing altitude at 100 to 200 feet per minute. The stall horn blared all the way down. A gentle buffet prompted me to nudge the power up a bit, and we coasted down to the undulating, mirror-like surface. Not as difficult as it looked.

Lake Como's weather is reliably good from May through October. The winter months are sometimes troubled by fog and strong winds. The lake is very busy with boaters on summer weekends, and the club closes on Sundays during that period.

Lake Como offers a host of activities to keep your interest while you are not flying. The lake is celebrated for its villas and their grand gardens. Many of the gardens are open to the public. The villas can be reached via a winding and picturesque lakeshore drive or by ferryboat. The lake is crossed by a network of ferry routes that will take you to most spots that you would likely want to visit. My favorite villa was Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo, which gracefully blends formal and informal gardens on a sloping site overlooking the lake. Bellagio, on a promontory in the middle of the lake, is the center for tourist-oriented shops. The Rockefeller Foundation owns the Villa Serbelloni there, with gardens overlooking the town and the lake, which are open to visit by appointment. Villa Melzi, also in Bellagio, offers spectacular lakeside gardens that are open daily, with no need for an appointment.

A guide to hiking trails in the hills around the lake is available from the tourist office in Piazza Cavour in Como. Pedal boats are available for rent at the dock in Como. Small motorboats with 25-horsepower engines (the horsepower limit if you don't have an Italian boat license) can be rented from Boat Service in Argegno, a few miles north of Como on the western shore. Boat Service will also take you waterskiing with a more powerful boat if you like. The lake fish (trout, perch, carp, and lavarello) are highly prized, and fishing is a popular activity on the lake. Golfing is available nearby.

Lake Como is not noted for its cuisine, yet it is not hard to find a good meal. The Hotel Terminus restaurant is on a beautiful shaded terrace overlooking the lake. The food is worthy of its setting. La Colombetta in downtown Como enlivens its menu with Sardinian specialties. The best meal I had was at the Trattoria del Vapore in Cernobbio, where the local lake fish are fresh and prepared in traditional style.

Como is less than an hour's drive from Milan's Malpensa Airport. Buses go twice a day from the airport to Piazza Cavour on the lakefront. There is also train service from Milan.

I spent four and one half hours of flight time over three days to obtain my Italian seaplane rating. Most students need between three and five hours. No flight test is required. The instructor determines when the student has demonstrated a sufficient skill level and writes an endorsement. The aviation authority at Milan Malpensa Airport issues the rating, usable only in Europe, based on that endorsement. Instruction costs 360,000 lire (at the current exchange rate about $199) per hour, including airplane, instructor, and fuel. Ground instruction is not charged. A Cessna 172 floatplane can be rented for 260,000 lire per hour. A temporary membership fee of 250,000 lire is charged for use of the club facilities but is waived if a pilot books an airplane for more than 10 hours.

Aeroclub Como's secretary speaks English and can be reached at 011-031-574495; fax 011-031-570333. The club has a Web site as well ( www.rubertotessuti.com).


Links to articles on vacation flying may be found on AOPA Online ( www.aopa.org/pilot/links/links9911.shtml). Dr. Gregory Palermo, AOPA 1164020, is a pathologist at John F. Kennedy Medical Center in Edison, New Jersey. He is the owner of a Piper Archer.