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The 2021 ESA-ECB Air Rally

After the great fun of the first ESA-ECB Air Rally in October 2020, we were impatient to arrange another one. So, after only a few months, we launched the 2021 ESA-ECB Air Rally.

Dive with me into the memories of this exciting competition!


The 2021 ESA-ECB Air Rally was made possible by the invaluable support of:

and by the artwork of Tom Colbie Art and the photographic account of Elena Barsottelli

Why an Air Rally

In October, we arranged this type of contest for the first time. While there were a few things that we knew we would need to fine-tune, all participants had a great time and were enthusiastic about the Air Rally. Indeed, it’s a great way to keep navigation skills and situational awareness honed. Naturally, the use of GPS is strictly forbidden.

You can read more about this type of competition in my previous post here. In this article I will simply say that flying an air rally requires you to fly a route as close as possible to your flight plan. Basically, It’s about being at the right place at the right moment!

The route

One of the key aspects for the success of a Rally is the route. In facts, waypoints must be challenging enough to identify. At the same time, they must be at a sufficient distance to prevent conflicting traffic and allow for a certain duration of the flight. Luckily, we had a friend of the Deutsche Flugsicherung to help us there and design the perfect route.

In our route, we had fountains, castles and even the final straight line of a car test track to conclude triumphantly the race.

All of them proved to be challenging, but if you made your flight plan well and followed it to the letter, it was achievable by all pilots.

Finding some balance during Covid-19 times

We initially planned May 8, hoping that the pandemic situation would be lighter. Sadly, the then-new Delta variant made things more complicated. Despite all restrictions, we managed to carry on with our event and had the great honor to be supported by very special guests:

Filippo Barbero and Filippo Fontemaggi, former Italian Airforce pilots, supported us as judges, and Elena Barsottelli, one of the most talented aviation photographers, documented the whole ESA-ECB Air Rally for us.

Sadly, no audience could attend and we had to cancel the presentations that our guests had prepared. I hope this article and the video below, will transmit all the enthusiasm and energy of the event. We hope to hold all presentations at the next occasion!

The pilots, the planes, the start

Finally, comes the moment of the race. Pilots receive the explanation of the rules and soon start their planning. Each crew is different from another: there are commercial, private and even student pilots. And the beauty of the Air Rally is that it’s so unique that flight hours don’t necessarily matter.

The handover of the routes

For this edition, we also had very different planes: a few 4-seaters (a Piper, a Maule and a Mooney) and many 2-seaters (Diamond Katana, Aquila A210 and the beautiful historic Ercoupe 415-D).

The Ercoupe 415-D

When the time for planning is over, we reconvene in front of the terminal and assign the starting time. Ori and I are the first to start with a declared speed of 115 kts.

Our race

I have already checked the Piper PA28 that will take us through this challenging route. The engine is warm, the red and white livery of the plane shines under the morning sun.

We hop on, but first let two special passenger accommodate. As the stress to fly the route as precisely as possible wasn’t already enough, we invited our Airforce guests onboard (please note that we were all already vaccinated and tested negative to multiple tests). I had already checked the weight and balance in case they trusted me that much.

And indeed, I took it as a very big sign of trust when they happily sat in the back of the plane.

The engine starts smoothly, we taxi to the holding point of RWY 26. As the plane accelerates on the asphalt the emotion leaves pace to concentration. The route officially starts on the first waypoint in Dieburg. I make use of the few minutes available to adjust the power settings and the elevator trim.

It’s a very clear day. As we enter the race track, I can see the bend of the Main river where the Aschaffeburg castle (our next waypoint) is located. I rely then on this visual reference and focus on my speed. Ori measures the time with its cronograph. I ask him a check when we are about 2 miles from the target. We seem to be doing fine.

Bias and illusions

Off to the next point! The next one is probably the one target that worries me most. Indeed, it is the fountain in the garden of an old German palace. I think I know the palace, but this makes me even more worried: there are so many historic buildings around Frankfurt. I may convince myself (and my navigator) that the target is that one castle with which I am more familiar rather than the correct one. In the end, the difficulty of a Rally lies all here. Trusting your planning and instruments more than your instinct.

Bias and illusions can trick us during a navigation. Many pages have been written about the subject and, thankfully, I read some of them.

As we get closer to our supposed target and the target time, we scan the ground intensely. In my recollection now, I may swear to have spotted at least 5 fountains!

But eventually there she is! In the front of the Philippsruhe Palace as described.

Intense traffic, difficulties over Ronneburg, and finally on ground

As more planes taking part to the Rally depart, also the radio chatter becomes more intense. I pay particular attention to where Tiago with his fast Mooney is. Fortunately there seem to be always proper separation.

In such context, it’s important to use the frequency for concise meaningful information. On each waypoint, I declared my position, the following reporting point, the heading and expected time overhead.

After the Ronneburg Castle, we were supposed to make a left turn. However, we found ourselves a few hundred meters left of the castle and had to make a right turn instead. This caused quite some difficulties to find the following one, the farm , but eventually we managed. Sadly, not without accruing some delay on that leg.

Ronneburg Castle seen from Tiago’s plane. Photo by Elena Barsottelli

Once found the solar farm, we confidently headed to the old Frankfurt airport, located in the district of Bonames. The airfield was opened by the Allied Forces and was used until 1992. Although converted now to a public park, the runway is still paved and the markings well visible.

We crossed the centre of the long asphalt strip right on spot and turned South for the final two waypoints: the stadium of Offenbach and the straight of the Opel test track.

As I landed the PA28, I realised the intense effort that one hour of such navigation meant. I felt truly satisfied for managing to keep the attention so high regardless of the final ranking.

On adifferent note, I was also quite happy for flying around two of the best pilots I may possibly know without being shouted at for some mistake!

The final ranking

Thanks to the great work of Mikel who coded the algorithm for the score, we had the ranking in matter of few minutes:

1st place: D-EMUX – Crew from ESA Aviators
2nd place: D-EXDA -Crew from Frankfurter Verein für Luftfahrt
3rd place: D-ETLK – Crew from Hanseatischer Flieger Club Frankfurt

Following the overwhelming positive response, we just can’t wait to organise the next Rally!

Don’t miss the video below for a visual report, and don’t forget to subscribe to the channel for more updates!

Watch the full video

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Flying an amphibian ultralight

I love flying seaplane! After my flights with Cessnas and a Piper, this time I tried flying an amphibian ultralight.

What I love most is the feeling of freedom deriving from the extreme contact with nature.

When you fly a seaplane you can land and discover places that are otherwise unreachable. Small hidden bays, shallow seas are just some of the possibilities. Follow me on a flight with a beautiful ultralight amphibian plane in Lecco, Italy, with Pilota Per Sempre and tell me your thoughts.

Seaplane or amphibian? General Aviation or Ultralight?

Before taking off, let’s have a look at the different options available to own and fly seaplanes.

The main concern for those considering buying a seaplane is that your are limited to water surfaces and this may not make economic sense, unless you leave in Canada or Alaska, perhaps. Also, floatplanes are slow and heavy because of the floats and, for the same reason, they don’t fly as well as conventional planes.

In my view, flying is almost never a matter of economic utility. As a popular say goes “the only way to become millionaire with airplanes is to start as a billionaire”. However, I perfectly understand the concern: a pure seaplane constrains enormously the range of uses.

Why not buying an amphibian plane, then? Floats with retractable gears are common, indeed, but due to the limited production the higher cost comes in as an additional factor. Then again, the more features an airplane has, the higher the likelihood that something will fail. And this means hefty repair costs.

Finding a trade-off in this dilemma seems a real endeavor. But is it really so? A possible solution, at least valid for a good number of prospective owners, seems offered by ultralight planes.

Indeed, ultralight makers have been enjoying some very favourable times all over the globe. Often, ultralight machines must comply with lighter rules than general aviation planes. Also, due to their low mass, they can easily outperform the immediate peers among conventional planes.

Don’t get me wrong, lighter rules (e.g. in the maintenance requirements and in the training of flight crews) do result in more frequent incidents. Then again, as a general aviation pilot, your training complies with higher standards. And you can appreciate the importance of regular maintenance by certified mechanics.

Amphibian planes in Italy

In Europe, Italy leads by example for the very progressive regulation with regard to seaplanes and, particularly, for what concerns ultralight seaplanes. Indeed, as a general rule with few exceptions, seaplanes are allowed to be wherever a normal boat is.

Also, Italy is the place of origin of many successful plane makers, like ICP, Groppo or Tecnam, just to name a few, and the oldest seaplane school: the Aeroclub Como.

This allowed for this very special segment to flourish and grow through the years offering important technological breakthroughs. In facts, several years ago, Graziano Mazzolari, an expert seaplane pilot and instructor decided to start the production of floats for the ultralight market. Today his company, Scuola Italiana Volo, exports all over the world their floats made in composite materials (like kevlar and carbon fiber) with front-running technologies.

These floats offer some unique advantage compared to the alloy ones typically seen around. Indeed, being made of composites, they are not subject to corrosion and they are very light. For this simple reason they allow leisure pilots to conduct operations also in salty waters.

Let’s get to the flying part!

So, on a fresh sunny morning I show up to the Kong Airfield a few miles South of the city of Lecco. My plan is to get familiar with the ICP Bingo on floats. My instructor will be nothing less than Riccardo Brigliadori, founder of the school “Pilota Per Sempre” and several-times Italian gliding champion.

Riccardo Brigliadori

The “walk-around” of the plane is like any other seaplane. The only difference is that the floats offer large inspections doors and the water amount is typically minimal, unlike metal floats.

I am overly curious about the performance of the plane on ground, in the air and on the water.

The 100 HP of the 912 Rotax engine push the plane through the narrow asphalt runway of the Kong airfield and the ultralight amphibian takes off in matter of few seconds. The shiny ultralight climbs splendidly despite the floats.

We cross the Adda river, conveniently close to the airfield in case of a malfunction during take off or landing. Then we pass over Olgiate and Garlate Lakes, two smaller water basins south of Lake Como.

The plane seems prone to much more inverse yaw that other seaplanes I have tried, like the Cessna 172. The reason lies probably in the modifications made to seaplane Cessnas. Indeed, to increase stability, ventral fins or additional stabilisers on the tail are generally added.

Preparing for the water landing I also realise that I need to get used to the shape of the nose and the different perspective in order to keep the plane straight on final, but I don’t worry, I will have plenty of time to get accustomed to it.

A great instructor

I enjoy flying with Riccardo too. As a glider pilot, he expects very clean maneuvers and spots instantaneously any slip of the plane. I am still trying to get comfortable with the amount of rudder I must use when turning and with a plane that is much more responsive than I thought. So, at times I feel like going back to the early stage of the PPL, but it’s a great feeling because I know I am improving my technique.

After not much I tame more easily this little yellow seaplane that loves to swing and yaw.

I must admit that flying an ultralight I was also cautious about the level of the training, but Riccardo has a very structured approach to flying. Everything, from the pre-flight inspection to the procedures during the flight are very consequential.

In synthesis, if you’d like to give it a try, I can warmly recommend the school “Pilota Per Sempre” as a very professional and friendly one.

Time to answer the initial questions

Well, I started this little adventures with some questions: General Aviation or Ultralight? and Seaplane or Amphibian?

I must say I greatly enjoyed flying an amphibian ultralight. It takes off so much quicker than a Cessna, it’s responsive and feels much more lively.

Ultimately, I think I found the answers at least to my specific dilemma. Since 2020, the EASA Acceptable Means of Compliance allow you to consider hours flown in an Ultralight plane for the recency of a PPL or LAPL. This makes ultralight much more attractive. However, pilots need to be disciplined and make sure they don’t become lazy in terms of maintenance.

As per the second question, amphibian seems the natural answer. The retracting mechanism of the gear employed on the floats of Scuola Italiana Volo is fast, simple and cleverly designed. Maintenance is not complex and parts are not overly expensive.

At the same time, I’d really like to hear your views on this. If you have experience in this field write me using the contact form

Take a look at the video of the flight

Why not taking a relaxing break and let the images of the beautiful Lake talk?

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A seaplane on the Moselle

Covid-19 changed our lives and habits in many ways. Sometimes, however, change is good. This time it gave me the opportunity to discover a most amazing place where to fly seaplanes in Germany, on the Moselle river.

Indeed, I had been checking the constantly-updating travel regulations for many weeks to find a suitable date to go to Lake Como and extend the rating with Aeroclub Como, as usual (check my previous post on the topic).

Sadly, it looked like I was not going to make it to Italy before the expiry of my cherished SEP-SEA rating. So, I looked for alternatives and to my surprise I found a very good one in the beautiful city of Trier, just a few kilometers away from my base.

The school

The “Drive and Fly” flight school is a family owned business that has been around for many years. Thanks to the warm atmosphere and the very high standards it quickly became a reference point for anyone wishing to learn to fly in the region of Rhineland-Palatinate.

I walked into the hangar, on a sunny morning just after observing the take-off of a loud T6 in mimetic livery, and I immediately received a warm welcomed and a good cup of coffee.

The Seaplane PA18 D-EGOR

Drive and Fly owns a beautiful 1953 Piper Super Cub on amphibian floats. It’s a historic plane maintained in perfect operating conditions thanks to the passion and the incredibly hard work of the Klippel family.

It took me some minutes to get acquainted with the different braking system, the gear controls and the controls located on the right and left side of the cockpit. This small initial effort was anyway compensated by a very simple checklist.

Taking off

I line up on RWY 04 (asphalt 1200x30m) and apply gently full power. D-EGOR needs only a small portion of the generous runway to detach from the ground. The floats modify the aerodynamic profile of the aircraft, and I have the feeling that she prefers to banks slightly left or right, but never fully straight. The engine plays a beautiful melody and soon I find myself astonished by the surrounding landscape of hills cut through by the Moselle river.

I retract the gear into the floats with the small lever and the four blue lights light up to indicate that the plane can now safely land on water.

As soon as we reach the Moselle, Norbert cuts the power to idle to simulate a sudden failure. I calmly align to the river and make some rough calculation of where the contact point will be. A long river tanker slowly moves towards us lifting waves to the sides. I am confident we will land safely behind it.

“Gear up for water landing” repeats the gear advisory connected to the audio system.

The plane glides smoothly a few feet from the water and, at that height, the branches of the trees on the right side play a lively stroboscopic effect with the sun rays. The floats touch the water softly. I receive a strong pat on my back to congratulate me on my first water landing on the Moselle.

Full power again! The Piper hops “on the step” in matter of seconds and detaches from the water soon after. It’s almost noon and the strong sun, the humidity from the river and the hills combine in unexpected thermals here and there.

Seaplanes in Germany

Flying over the river I understand the need to restrict the use of seaplanes to only a few spots and planes. The narrow valley does not allow for much maneuvering. In addition, there are power lines than cross the river, which are not always signaled. To make things worst, rivers in Germany are heavily used for the transport of goods and people. This elements altogether make flying in Germany with seaplanes very complicated.

A few bases exist in Germany apart from the Moselle, in Flensburg, in Boden See and in Welzow (ICAO code: EDUY), but several restrictions apply and this ends up affecting enormously the life of this segment of aviation.

Taking off from under a bridge

I taxi at different speeds on the river. A swan seems to look at us with a certain degree of disdain. We both know that nobody can compete with the grace and mastery of the beautiful bird. Without thinking to much, I line up for take-off again!

This time the take off run happens under a bridge. It’s impossible not to think of the Red Bull Air Race in Budapest, where the entry into the track used to pass right under a bridge. But of course, we are still on the water and the speed is much lower. A few feet into the air and we make first a right turn, to follow a bend of the river. Soon after we make another to the left, over the trees on the river side back to the airport of Trier.

Gear down, full flaps and the Super Cub touches down softly on the asphalt of the runway and then back to hangar.

Contact Drive & Fly

The website of the company is currently being updated, but you can reach the school per email at or by phone at +49 6502 9998999.

Video of the flight

Perhaps a video is worth a million words, check here the video account of the flight and if you like it, don’t forget to subscribe to my channel.

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A conversation with two exceptional pilots

A few weeks ago, I made the lucky acquaintance of two formidable pilots. I am constantly looking to learn as much as I can from better and more experienced pilots. For this reason, I was thrilled to exchange some thoughts with Filippo Barbero, pilot of the Frecce Tricolori (the Italian Airforce Aerobatic Team) from 2010 till end of 2018 and solo pilot from 2015 , and Filippo Fontemaggi, helicopter pilot for Search-and-Rescue and expert of flight safety.

Together they started an online channel called Aviator Channel where they discuss with subscribers about aeronautical culture, airmanship and aviation safety. You can find it on Twitch and I strongly recommend you to subscribe!

The atmosphere of the channel is great! It quickly became the usual meeting point for a variety of pilots and aviation fans. After having discussed my incident with two RC planes in one of the live episodes, we decided to have a simple conversation on the channel on more general topics.

I find it truly great that two pilots of such standing spend so much of their private time for this initiative. Through the channel we all learn to make the sky safer and a more enjoyable place.

You find the full interview at the end of the article. It was done in Italian, but you can activate English subtitles.

Find here some afterthoughts about our chat:

The passion for flying

The passion for flying strikes everyone in different ways: Filippo Barbero told me that his interest in aviation started thanks to a course on aeronautical culture held by the Italian Airforce during high-school times. His contact with the world of aviation happened somehow late, but it was love at at first sight. He then followed the course to obtain the glider pilot license and this set in motion all the steps that followed and for which we all know him.

Filippo Fontemaggi had a different trigger. He admitted smiling that, like many of his generation, he was charmed by the movie Top Gun and similar Hollywood movies. At the same time, he had a genuine and deeptly-rooted passion, which his mother supported all the way.

Indeed, often parents with a different background think of aviation as a merely practical activity. They don’t consider that pilots must continuously train on a variety of topics and get tested regularly on their knowledge and skills.

Also, training as a pilot can become the way to to serve one’s country. Both pilots, indeed, trained with the Italian Airforce. After the first contact with an operative unit, they knew the Airforce was their natural environment.

The value of the military training

A few minutes into our chat, it became very clear to me to what extent the training and the professional environment are key distinctive elements. Military values revolve around the importance of the team to achieve complex goals.

Also, a constant stream of feedback characterises the environment in an operative unit. Its aim is to fine-tune the skills of each pilot to the highest standard.

As civilian and private pilots there is much we can learn from this world. Honesty, respect and transparency are simple qualities we should particularly observe and value when flying.

Stress and fear

Filippo Barbero served with the Airforce in theatres of operations before joining the National Aerobatic Team (in Italian “PAN”). Filippo Fontemaggi performed search and rescue mission for the Airforce in high-risk environments. Because of the nature of these activities, I wanted to ask about their relationship with stress and fear, a topic that many pilots avoid talking about.

It is normal and even healthy to feel stress when performing a complex task, especially when it’s something new. The stress is a way for our brain to keep alert. However, if a pilot feels fear before a flight, this should be taken as a warning signal about the quality of their training.

For military pilots, taking-off for a specific assignment is a duty. The mindset is therefore very different from that of a leisure pilot, who can decide whether to take-off or not depending on the spur of the moment.

Also, the purpose is very distant: an Airforce pilot has a concrete task to complete. Generally a mission which is critical for the life of others. A leisure pilot generally flies for more abstract -although merit worthy- reasons, like fulfill their own sense of achievement or simply enjoy the view.

Watch the full interview

The interview was conducted in Italian. However, you can activate the subtitles pressing the ‘CC’ button and then switch to English clicking on the ‘settings’ icon.

Click here to access the full interview.

More about the channel

Many of the past episodes can be found on the Youtube channel. This way you can also benefit of the auto-translated captions.

Here some of my favourites:

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Story of an Air Rally

“We’re way too fast, slow down as much as you can” says Ori as we approach Schloss Auerbach, one of the many castles in southern Hesse, built by nothing less that King Charlemagne. I reduce power, pitch up the nose to the limit of stall and extend flaps. In matter of seconds our speed drops by 35 knots. “Great! Now off to RID VOR”. This way we headed to gain the second place at the 2020 ESA-ECB Air Rally.

What is an air rally?

Back a few years, air navigation was conducted relying only on paper charts, compass and stop watch. There was no GPS and even no radio navigation aids (like VORs). A great way to train pilots was to have them compete in races of precision. Pilots would need to reach given waypoints exactly at the time declared and every deviations either in terms of time of space would add to a penalty. The crew to complete the course with the least penalty would win.

Today, most pilots just rely on their GPS, after obtaining their license. Moving maps and GPS are indeed great tools if used properly, but one should not lose proper navigation skills, so air rallying is a great way to keep one’s ability honed and have fun with other pilots.

The idea of our own Air Rally

2020 has been an incredibly bad year for most people because of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Aviation was among the sectors that were hit harder.

I had been planning for months to join a very special competition, the Air Rally of the Six lakes, organised by Aeroclub Como and to be run with Seaplanes. Due to COVID-19 my original plans were sadly frustrated and the race was first postponed and then cancelled.

I really did not want to give up, after so much preparation. At the same time I wanted to make any possible event meaningful for who was truly suffering because of COVID.

After a lot of reflection, I put some ideas down on paper and discussed with some friends, members of the flying club of the European Space Agency. After a brief call, we decided to go ahead and put the foundations for the first ESA-ECB Air Rally together with fund-raising for various intiatives.

A very special guest

We were also blessed with the participation of Paolo Ferri, former Spacecraft Operation Manager of the ESA Mission “Rosetta” and Head of Mission Operations when the Air Rally took place. Paolo was fundamental for the success of our event: he was our honorary judge, he took all the air-to-air pictures and gave an unforgettable presentation about Mission Rosetta. The talk with him was truly a special experience to understand the intricacies behind one of the most complex missions of space exploration in the history of mankind.

I strongly recommend to take a look at the Masterclass series, which he recorded for the European Space Agency, and to his recently published book about mission Rosetta (“Il cacciatore di comete“, the comet chaser)

Finally the race

Pilots and navigators gather around the table of the flight planning room. For this edition of the Rally it was decided that the pilots would agree together the route rather than receiving a given one from the judges.

After a brief discussion the route is decided: EDFE (Egelsbach) -> RID VOR -> The entry of Eicher See (a small marina on the side of the Rhein River) -> the Coleman Airfield (a former US base) -> Castle Auerbach -> RID VOR and then back to Egelsbach.

All navigators work on their planning, calculate routes, times and speeds. Check the weather and wind corrections. The hall is silent, but the tensions is high. It’s a friendly contest, that’s clear, but nobody wants to lose.

All crews walk to their aircrafts, run the pre-flight checks and start the engines!

Unexpected complication

Ori and I decided to fly with a Diamond Aircraft DV20 of my flying club. We chose it mostly because it’s responsive, offers amazing visibility and can accelerate or slow down in matter of instants, should that be needed.

We had a shocking surprise as we hopped on, though. The directional gyro, a really important instrument for precision flying, had been removed due to some malfunction in a previous flight.

When flying the compass gives very erratic indication due to the movement of the plane on different axes and its acceleration. For this reason, when flying the gyroscopic compass is preferred. It keeps a steady heading thanks to a fast-spinning rotor and is not subject to the errors which affect the compass.

Running this type of competition without that instrument meant that our competition was already going uphill. We don’t lose our cool. Visibility is good and I am confident that we can locate the way points also visually.

Take off!

We accelerate on the wet runway 26, we detach from the asphalt at 55 knots and the DV20 climbs nicely through the cold sky. On the ground, the participants stare with awe at the planes lining up and departing one after the other.

“Whisky-Foxtrot, Uniform-X-Ray we’ve acquired you”

Close to RID-VOR, we were in contact with the mighty Maule of Christian. Paolo, on board, took great air-to-air shots of all aircrafts.

Too fast! Too fast!

The rally was going well, we were practically perfect on all waypoints. We just had a slight delay on the entry of Eicher See, but still nothing dramatic if we could make sure that the other legs would be flown precisely. But just as we approached Castle Auerbach, a castle in the hills erected by King Charlemagne, Ori warned me that we were very fast and had too much advantage with respect to the planned target time. I pitched up the plane, applied carburetor heat and reduced power. As soon as the airspeed indicator dropped below 90 knots I also applied full flaps and reapplied power to maintain the plane at 55 knots. The DV20 maintained its speed without any issue. At such a low speed any turn must very gentle and the bank must remain very contained in order to prevent a stall.

“We made it!” announced Ori “now off to RID”. I “cleaned” the aircraft, which means retracting flaps, and pitched down to get back to our cruising speed.

The last leg was exhilarating. We joined in formation the other aircrafts who kept orbiting around RID and then landed back in Egelsbach winning the second place of the 2020 ESA-ECB Air Rally.

More visual narrations of the event

Exclusive sketches by Watercolorasia

Video album

Charity cause

The main purpose of the event was to raise charity. The many donations received were given to the ONG “Emergency which offers free medical care in war zones and in areas affected by extreme poverty, attending a patient every minute since 1994.


I would like to thank wholeheartedly Paolo Ferri for his involvement and for sharing his unique experience. I would like to thank Gavox Watches for sponsoring the first prize , all the volunteers who supported our event, Holger Neuhaus for the amazing pictures, Dirk Wagner for the moderation of the event with Paolo Ferri, Diamond Aircraft for letting us use their space and Motorflugschule Egelsbach for additional logistical support.

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A near miss with two RC jet planes

The story I am going to tell you is still very fresh in my mind, yet so shocking that it is difficult for me to draw any conclusions. Indeed, this post is probably a way to fix some thoughts while I still struggle to make sense out of it.

A perfect morning

As I love to do in Summer, I met a friend at the airfield right at opening time (0800 CEST). I run the pre-flight checks and as usual I explain to my guest through each part and why it is critical for the safety of our flight. Over the years, I find that actually saying what you are about to do or doing, makes you less prone to forget things and make mistakes, so I like to have some audience to justify my words.

Fuel fine, all systems are working properly, so I line up RWY 26 and take off in what seemed the clearest and calmest day of the year. Even close to the hills, the air was smooth. As matter of fact, visibility was virtually unlimited. Right after passing the city of Darmstadt with a southern heading, I was able to direct the look straight to Mannheim and the Neckar river valley, where the city of Heidelberg is located.

Flying over the Rhein, the color of its waters was of an unusual blue. I was monitoring the instruments and in my heart was thinking what a blessing days like these are to clear the head from the stress of work and inject breathtaking memories.

As I passed over one of my favourite castles and then headed East to pass the valley and reduce altitude in view of the landing a few minutes later.

The encounter

I knew I had to avoid a city called Reinheim, because of a NOTAM (“notification to airmen”, a message service to warn pilots of dangers or restrictions) related to aerobatic activities, so I headed towards Ober-Ramstadt. All seemed truly fine, when it happened and it happened incredibly fast so that my brain could not really determine what was really going on.

The only useful thing that some brain cells agreed was that it was something that required an immediate reaction because I lied on on colliding trajectory with the object in front of me. I pushed the controls fully to the right, hoping for the Katana to respond as quickly as needed. While the plane rolled right, my brain finally made some sense of what was going on: a radio-controlled jet model had intersected my flying path vertically at an incredibly small distance and was now closing a loop. If I had delayed my manoeuvre, it would have crashed into the canopy of the plane.

For some instants, I could not say a word, trying instead to review mentally the images of that objects.

Then, I gave a look to the plane ad check that everything was fine and called the radio station to report the encounter.

The footage from the cameras

Thankfully, I had two GoPros recording at the time of the incident. I placed one camera inside the cockpit, while the other I had mounted and secured to the foot step on the left side of the plane, looking backwards.

Once landed I called the Deutsche Flugsicherung (the air traffic control) and reported the incident providing immediately video and GPS recordings.

Then I sat in front of my laptop watching the recordings a countless times. My GPS said I was at 1900 ft when the near miss happened. The elevation of the ground below me was around 800ft, based on data from Google Earth. This meant that I found myself in airspace Echo, well above safety altitude.

European regulations allow model planes to fly higher than 400ft only if the pilot(s) have a certificate of proficiency and a flight director looks out and warns about possible traffic.

A lot of questions

My head was flooded with questions: did I do something wrong? if the RC plane had hit me would I have sufficient control to land the plane?

I felt quite powerless: II followed all regulations and even exercised extra care. To realise that something so independent from our conduct could cause a catastrophic end brought to my mind the pages of a famous book among pilots: “Fate is the hunter” by Ernest K. Gann

But while I could do nothing more than trying to avoid the two objects as quickly as I could, I thought that once on ground I could indeed do something to reduce the risk. So I though “what can we do to avoid similar issues from happening again?”

Perhaps 2 things which could be done easily:

  • 1. Mark model airfields on your ICAO charts
  • 2. Make compulsory for model pilots to monitor traffic, either via radio or with an ADS-B receiver and monitor

The video report

What next?

Well, I am waiting to know the outcome of the investigation of the Bundesamt für Flugsicherung, the body that took over the investigation. Once available I will share it on this website. Meanwhile, take your ICAO chart and mark additional danger areas that may not be present on it.

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Hunting clouds in a small plane

Very often, a VFR pilot wakes up in the morning, looks at a gloomy sky and has to make the call whether to go on with a planned flight. This call is sometimes very difficult to make. Chasing clouds definitely requires some luck.

I woke up at 5.00 am because of the rain. Half asleep I couldn’t avoid thinking of the weather I would find two hours later and if I would manage to fly at all. However, the rain stopped quickly. I checked the meteo forecast for Frankfurt Egelsbach (which, unfortunately does not have a METAR anymore): 16.5 C, 91% humidity and weather improving over the day.

Now, you may or may not know that you can estimate the cloud height with a simple rule of thumb:

(local temperature – dew point) * 400m where the dew point is simply the local temperature multiplied by the humidity rate.

In this case, the result gave me the hope of having a very special flight with scattered clouds at low altitude. In airspace G, (the closest to the ground in uncontrolled space, more info here) you are required to simply keep clear of clouds but have no specific requirement for horizontal separation. However, please, always respect the Rules of the Air and don’t take risks. Entering a cloud in VFR is a top killer of pilots and very likely to disorient even most expert pilots.

I am going to remember the flight for a very long time. Dancing with the clouds, chasing and flying around them is a very special way to start your day. The contemplation of nature is what make flying very special for me (check this article too). So, after this very special dance I returned to the airfield very grateful for the breathtaking images I engraved in my mind.

But you are lucky, because I also caught them on tape!

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Diary of an Apprentice Astronaut

Penguin released the English translation of “Diary of an Apprentice Astronaut” by ESA Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti last week (link here). The Diary is a very personal account of what happened to the Writer from the moment she was selected for one of the first stages of the recruitment for ESA Astronauts till she landed back in Kazakhstan after 200 days in Space on board of the International Space Station.

Please trust my opinion, this should be the next book you read, if you are even just remotely interested in aviation and space exploration.

Indeed, let me say that only a few books were able to capture my interest, satisfy my curiosity and then pierce my layer of critical filter to touch directly my core values and feelings.

Richard Bach wrote in a famous article: “Any [pilot] who would print his loves and fears and learnings on the pages of magazines says farewell to the secrets of his mind and gives them to the world.” This is what Samantha Cristoforetti did by opening her diary to us.

But let’s get to what I loved of the book:

All the information you wish for, never overly technical

Only a few people have the gift to explain complex things in easy terms. Thanks to this great ability of the Author, I managed to discover a lot of aspects and details of the background of a space mission without getting lost in difficult scientific explanations.

The language is direct and clear, the way you would indeed expect from a pilot and astronaut, but don’t think the book is at all a dry description of technical aspects.

To the contrary, you’ll see how relationship, teamwork and friendship are at the core of space exploration. Reading the book you realise how all space missions rely on a planetary network of agencies, scientists, expert, trainers, technicians that work around the clock and around the globe. Astronauts in training travel around the globe to the different agencies to train on modules, procedures, suits and tools over a period that lasts around 2 years.

If the extent of this global cooperation is somewhat new to you, you can’t avoid asking yourself, why don’t we cooperate so well with each other also in all other fields?

The descriptions

As said, the book is far from being some sterile technical account of events. A side that I truly enjoyed are the descriptions of places, people and rituals. I don’t think I will ever visit the Cosmodrome of Baikonur or Star City, the complex outside Moscow where astronauts train, but in my head I could almost tell you how the coffee and cookies taste and what precise tone the carpets are. I could imagine to walk in the room where they serve a royal-like buffet before the departure of the astronauts and I could imagine to smile and nod while hearing a toast in Russian. I could almost feel the pain in my forearm when the Author describes the difficulty of grabbing an object while wearing the rigid gloves of the EMU, the NASA suit for extravehicular activities.

Reflections on human life

This is not a book about philosophy nor about politics and a few ontological questions pop-up very discreetly only every now and then. However, who saw our planet from 400km of height acquires necessarily a different perspective on the life on our planet. The lifespan of the whole mankind is absolutely irrelevant compared to the age of Universe. Yet too much of our life gets wasted in fights and diatribes. If we became more aware of how insignificant our existence is compared to the rest of Universe, perhaps we would be more compassionate towards each other.

I loved this aspect of the book because it’s a feeling I also share. Let me be clear, I have little to share with the experience of the Author. I have very little experience of microgravity limited to a few instants in some aerobatic manoeuvre and I would probably never be able to spend more than a week with the same 6 individuals in the limited room of the International Space Station. Nevertheless, I understand somehow the feeling, as this is similar to what I and many other pilots feel after a flight where we managed to contemplate the beauty of nature: humbled and grateful.

In conclusion

I found it a very inspiring reading and I would strongly recommend it to anyone, but especially to young readers.

Diary of an Apprentice Astronaut is truly a great book and I am confident you will be as satisfied with the reading as I was. Now, when I look at the sky and spot the ISS at night, I feel a whole new sense of familiarity with that strange object and its inhabitants.

The book is available in English, Italian and German at any online bookstore (not sure, why the changed the cover in the English edition, I personally prefer the Italian version, below).

Also, all proceeds of the Author go to charitable organisations.

Do you want to spot the ISS at night or verify whether it was that light spot in the sky? check here:

As usual, I am happy to hear your comments!


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What pilot watches to own in 2020

The Aeronaut has finally completed its list of most appreciated watches for 2020. This doesn’t mean that the watches have necessarily been released this year. It’s more a view on how they compare to peers and the general trends in terms of watches.

It was a really tough choice because of the many excellent watches available. Also, I hope you will forgive the delay in publishing this list, but due to very high workload it was impossible to write earlier.

Enjoy and be safe!

Gavox Spitfire

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Gavox is one of the brands I love for many reasons: Michael Happé designed this watch for pilots and maintains its impeccable taste throughout all models while ensuring to meet the operational needs of any aviator: readability, durability and precision. Do you need a proof for this? Many fighter jet pilots and also cinema celebrities like Monica Bellucci wear Gavox on their wrists.

Let’s get, however, to the reason why I chose the Spitfire. Right when I felt satisfied about my collection of pilot watches by Gavox and was thinking to move to another micro brand, Gavox released the Spitfire and it was love at first sight! The Spitfire features a 36mm case, sapphire crystal and a Seiko quartz movement. You read right: 36mm! In facts, in today’s world, this is an unusually small size. However, I tested the watch in flight and can enthusiastically say that this is a pure pilot watch, well readable even during bumpy rides. But its charm is not limited to the sky. indeed, it will catch a lot of attention also discretely sliding out of a suit’s cuff.

The price is EUR 210 at Gavox shop.

Bulova A15

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Bulova is a name that grew closely linked to the American air and space industry. The NASA chose their clocks to display the official time in the control rooms of the US space program during its Mercury, Gemini and Apollo years. Bulova’s Accutron even made it to space during Apollo 15.

The recently issued A15 is the remake of a watch commissioned by the US government for the military pilots in 1943. The government requested a reliable and solid watch and it needed to have a very specific function: keeping track of the lapsed flight time. Only a few test watches were produced, the series production sadly never took off. Along this line, many things changed over time: Bulova went into financial trouble is now owned by Citizen and this watch mounts a Miyota automatic movement instead of one of the innovative and original movement Bulova became known for. Nevertheless, we have to be thankful to Citizen for keeping alive a brand that accompanied some of the bravest conquest in mankind.

However, I chose this watch for three main reasons: 1. the way its 42 mm case looks and feels is absolutely amazing, 2. I keep cheering for Bulova and hope in the future it will make us talk because of some new crazy proprietary movement and 3. I desperately needed a watch with a lapsed time marker for my flights.

The hands and dial numbers are treated with blue luminescent paint.

The watch prices around EUR 499 and is available from multiple online stores.

Breitling Navitimer B01 Cronograph

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One may argue that recommending to purchase a watch that has been around for ages does not make much sense. I disagree and I will tell you why: Breitling recently became property of a private equity fund. Accordingly, the group took some decisions that are in my view excessively profit oriented and disregard the long tradition and history of Breitling. under the new owenrship of CVC Capital partners, the company is selling a new version of “Navitimer”. Unfortunately the new watch has very little to share with the original model holding this name: the Navi-8, the name given to the new Navitimer, indeed has no flight ruler, no cronograph and no proprietary movement. So my choice to include the B01 is a way to celebrate the real Breitling spirit with one of the most iconic models ever made.

Unimatic – Modello 1 (U1-FN)

This is not exactly an aviator watch. It’s a diver’s watch, which works great also in the air. Indeed, it offers a very simple dial, with minimum visual disturbances. The hands are treated with Super Luminova (R) C1 and the case is dark and brushed, which prevents disturbing glare when flying on a sunny day. All these features together ensure maximum visibility. The caliber is an automatic Seiko and the watch is water resistant up to 300m.

Price is currently EUR 625 on the Unimatic website.

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A very special passenger

A few times I have offered her old to join me for a flight. She generally declined in various ways, ranging from a diplomatic “oh today is not a good day, what about tomorrow?” to a more direct “No, I don’t want to!”

Still flying with her remained a big dream for me.

A few weeks ago, a friend with whom I was supposed to fly called me in the morning to say he could not join.

“Well” I thought “perhaps this is the time”. So without inquiring or explaining too much, I told my daughter and my wife that I needed to go to the airport and whether they wanted to come with me. Once there, I asked the little one whether she would like to fly with Dad and see our house from the sky. Her excited smile mattered the world to me. I walked her to the DA40, which was waiting for us out of the hangar, did the walk around with her, answering to any question she might have and then sat her in the plane.

She loved talking through the headset. It was so funny to see how she tried to act and talk through the mic as professional as a six year-old can. The day was relatively calm, but we felt a couple of bumps here and there. I explained to her this was normal and she wasn’t scared at all. She loved to watch the town and the fields from a 1000 ft. Eventually we flew over our home. When she recognised it, she could not contain her excitement. “Papa, that is our home! Look!”

We headed back and, after landing, completing the final checklist and removing the headset, she looked at me and told me the words that every pilot and father would like to hear: “Papa it was the most beautiful thing I have ever done! I want to come with you every time you fly!”…. she waited a few more instants and then again: “Papa, can I give you a kiss?”

I wanted to share with you this very emotional moment for me. Did you fly with your kids? How was it? Feel free to drop me a line!