Pilot Journal
Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Emerald Goddess

Saved from the scourges of war, a glorious Italian biplane rises from the ashes to lead la dolce vita

Tall and dignified, moving with the easy gait of Marcello Mastroianni in a '60s Frederico Fellini movie, Gerolamo Gavazzi supervises the dock crew. They're winching down his Caproni seaplane from its lofty perch. Most days, it hangs suspended from the hangar rafters for all to see and admire at Aero Club Como, one of the most celebrated seaplane bases in the world.

Several hands guide the seabird on its wheeled cart down to the soothing blue-green waters of Lago di Como—northern Italy's lush playground, Lake Como. Gavazzi is a perfect match for the Caproncino, or "little Caproni." Fellini himself couldn't have cast this duo of plane and pilot any better. Signore pilota Gavazzi has the silver hair and dashing smile of an aristocrat or matinee idol. Likewise, the airplane, in its immaculate restoration, exudes a simple elegance from every polished brass fitting and every taut rigging line.

Indeed, this very airplane, along with its fellow Caproncini, once taught pre-World War II pilots the skill and art of float flying. Today, the little Caproni Ca100, built in 1935, is a celebrated showpiece at Aero Club Como. Every month, people come from near and far for Caproni Day just to see it fly.

It's a magnificent creature by any standard. Aesthetically, the biplane—a variant of the de Havilland Gipsy Moth first license-built by the Caproni factory in 1929—is a sterling evocation of the Golden Age of flight.

From a pilot's perspective, you want to clamp your hands onto the leather-collared open cockpit, climb in, pull on the helmet and goggles, throttle up the in-line Colombo S63 engine and send the lake's spray flying.

And historically, it's a rare gem indeed; it's the only Italian pre-World War II idrovolante, or seaplane, still flying today. But the story of its survival and resurrection is even more remarkable. Were it not for the devotion of certain anonymous aviation visionaries, by all rights, Caproni aircraft number MM65156/I-ABOU should have been covered in mud at the bottom of Lake Como for the last 61 years.


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