Wednesday, November 1, 2006
Saved from the scourges of war, a glorious Italian biplane rises from the ashes to lead la dolce vita
Both are celebrated examples of classic airplanes and have won many awards. Perhaps the most prestigious of those awards is the Phoenix Diploma, bestowed by no less than the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, (FAI). The award is given for the best reconstruction or restoration of a vintage aircraft by an individual amateur.
Many years, the Phoenix Diploma isn’t awarded at all. Gerolamo Gavazzi has won it twice (in 1991 and 2001). He’s the only person to achieve such a feat.
It’s a hot, humid day on Lake Como. Looking north through the haze over the lake, the thousands of terra-cotta villas, homes and apartments that cover the many hills and mountains shimmer in the heat. Thoughts of jumping off the dock for a refreshing dip are on the minds of more than one of the hardworking young crew members.
Gavazzi pulls on his khaki flight suit and finishes the preflight. You’d think an owner who spent so much time rebuilding his seabird—around 10,000 hours—would be anxious to hop into the cockpit and fly. Instead, he patiently checks fuel and oil as if he had all the time in the world.
“When you fly these types of airplanes, it is true flying,” he says, gingerly stepping into the rear cockpit for our photo session. “The smell of the leather inside, the oil. It’s not like anything else.”
The crew hand-props the engine to life. With easy confidence, Gavazzi taxis the emerald goddess out onto the breeze-lapped waters, guided by Lake Como’s float-marked “runway.” He turns into the wind, eases the throttle forward. The Colombo S63 roars to life, and in moments, the beautiful flivver lifts off from its foamy wake to sail the skies above Lake Como.
Cruising across the idyllic Lago di Como backdrop, Gavazzi might as well be filming a scene in a Fellini film. His goggles are parked up on his leather-helmeted forehead, in favor of a pair of stylish aviator sunglasses. Left arm laid jauntily on the cockpit rim, he pulls an easy bank to circle once above George Clooney’s waterside villa.
You can so easily imagine him dropping a bouquet of flowers over the side to a waving Clooney, then turning south to land for an afternoon luncheon with friends, kicked off with bread and a glass of fine red vino at a sidewalk café amidst the many peach-colored buildings of Como.
La dolce vita, indeed.
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