Cesare Baj dropped the first notch of flaps on the Lake Buccaneer as we circled Castelli di Cannero, a castle from the 13th century. The amazingly intact structure was built on a rocky outcrop in the middle of a lake 600 to 700 years ago as a means of discouraging unwanted visitors. That philosophy can be evidenced today as this late-medieval castle remains virtually inaccessible to almost all tourists who visit Italy. But not for us. Cesare set the amphib down, and we glided to a stop just a few feet from the main castle wall. "This is why we like to fly floats," he said with a big smile.
Baj is a member of the 75-year-old Aero Club Como on the shores of Lake Como in northern Italy, near the border of Switzerland. The club survived occupations by the Germans and then the Allies during World War II, and has proudly maintained itself as one of the most celebrated seaplane bases in the world. In addition to offering rides and instruction, Aero Club Como is one of the few remaining places in the world where you can rent a float plane to fly solo. And that makes for some remarkable opportunities.
"People take our float planes all over the place," Baj says proudly. Lake Como itself offers 106 miles of shoreline, with countless villas (George Clooney owns one) and resorts (the original Bellagio is here) as well as restaurants, museums and an untold number of adventures. Within easy range of Aero Club Como are the Alps, the Mediterranean, Florence, Venice and Milan. St. Moritz, which has the highest airport in Europe, is a mere 35 minutes away.
Baj has just returned from a flying/floating adventure to the Greek Isles. "It was like that Nat King Cole song," he says of his trip, then breaks into "It's unforgettable…."
Aero Club Como has more than a hundred local patrons, and three times that number who come from around the world to fly float planes. The nonprofit club charges 150 euros for membership, which gives members access to the whole fleet of seaplanes, from Cessna 172s to the Lake Buccaneer, which the club claims is the only flying boat in the world available for rent.
Many pilots are drawn to Aero Club Como by its unmatched legacy as one of the world's great repositories of seaplane talent, along with its idyllic setting at one of Europe's most beautiful locations, Lake Como. Julius Caesar was one of the first dignitaries to visit the lake, and even today, descendants from families who came during the height of the Roman empire still live in the terra-cotta houses and villages that surround the region. Hollywood luminaries frequent the restaurants and villas, and activities around the lakeshore regularly appear in the international press.
To the locals, activities at Aero Club Como don't seem unusual. Float flying began on the lake in 1913 and residents are accustomed to seeing seaplanes taxi across the narrow street from the club's hangar and continue down into the water. The club has an extensive collection of photos and information about the history of flying floats on the lake. That heritage alone makes Aero Club Como worth visiting.
Pilots of all skill levels, even those with zero seaplane time, take advantage of the club's stable of seaplane instructors. "Many pilots come here just to learn how to fly on the water," Baj says. Before arriving, an interested pilot must fax a copy of his or her license and medical to the club for validation to fly in Italy. A local instructor will acquaint the new arrivals with the Italian flight rules and regulations before the lessons (on flying a Skyhawk or the 180 hp Super Cub on floats) begin.
Pilots who have made Aero Club Como their entrée into float flying report that the club's time-tested approach is more comprehensive than the garden-variety seaplane courses, which are often scheduled over a couple of days. "If you just want to get a signature in your log book, you should do the two-day course," Baj says. "If you want to be a seaplane pilot, you should come here."
Experienced seaplane pilots may only have to complete a single-engine aircraft check-out before they are signed off and good to go. However, that doesn't mean carte blanche access to all of Europe's waterways. Though Aero Club Como's pilots log an aggregate of more than 4,000 hours of yearly float flying, the group has an outstanding safety record and intends to keep it that way. Newcomers, even high-time pilots, are encouraged to first visit any number of highlights along Lake Como's shoreline, and must work their way toward earning any serious cross-country privileges.
"You can have 20,000 hours in a 747, but you haven't learned to think about what happens when you turn the engine off on a float plane and start drifting toward the shore," Baj points out. "Where are you going to end up? If you don't have a lot of experience with seaplanes, it might not end up the way you imagine." He says even high-time float pilots can get complacent and become accidents waiting to happen. "Data from studies in the United States show that safety begins to occur after a pilot has accumulated about 500 hours or more of seaplane time," continues Baj.
"When I'm doing an aircraft check-out, I watch the pilot's eyes. If he keeps his eyes in the cockpit very long, I know he's not a seaplane pilot!" Baj says matter-of-factly.
For those who prefer to be accompanied by an experienced local pilot on sightseeing flights, "safety pilots" are available at no charge.
But if sightseeing across southern Europe is high on your list, one shortcut is to take along a "safety pilot." Aero Club Como will loan you an experienced pilot with plenty of local knowledge, at no charge. "Recently an attorney from Los Angeles came here and took one of our planes and a safety pilot to do business in Tuscany and Venice. I'm sure it was a business trip he'll always remember!" Baj laughs.
Aero Club Como also organizes supervised group trips to locations throughout Italy. There's never a shortage of participants. On the summer solstice, the club hosts an annual celebration. All of the club's planes fly until the last bit of sunshine disappears behind the mountains, usually well past 10 p.m. Hundreds of people come to enjoy the sights, the flying, lots of food and live music.
But most of the visitors to Aero Club Como are interested in flying—learning to fly floats for the first time or learning to fly them even better. And customers who get the bug for seaplanes return to the club year after year. Standing in front of the club's hangar, one often witnesses what looks like a family reunion, as customers return and see friends with a similar passion. "It's like a family," Baj says, "and flying is our family tradition." He smiles as yet another seaplane taxis across the road and slides into the water. All of us here think that we're truly lucky to see Europe from, shall we say, such a unique perspective!"
For more information on Aero Club Como, visit www.aeroclubcomo.com, or call +39 (031) 576695.