Aviation is a very broad world and I am fascinated by every side of it. Among these, I have been truly curious about seaplanes for a good while.
I love to watch videos of Alaskan or Canadian seaplane pilots. The image I have in my head is that of glassy lake water rippled by the waves impressed by a plane on take off. The freedom that seaplanes bring to the people living where the planet is more impervious is also a charming side of it.
And then, one of my aviation buddies did his ‘SEP-SEA’ class rating in Como, in northern Italy, and told me all about his experience and the ‘seaplane fever’ quickly took over.
I browsed a bit to see what alternatives exist in Europe, but in no time I decided to go for the class rating in Como.
The reasons are very simple: The school is the oldest sea plane school in the world still operating, the price was reasonable, their fleet offers a good range of choice (including some old timers) and you have the opportunity to learn to fly sea planes in one of the most amazing places in the world, where famous international movies were shot and were George Clooney lives. While I know for you it won’t probably matter, I also had the reference of my good friend Onur, who is somebody I would trust blindly when it comes to flying.
I sent an email to the Aeroclub Como, they replied in matter of minutes with a list of possible dates and timetable. By end of day, it was decided, I was going to fly in Como.
The walk from the train station to the hangar of the club takes around 5 minutes, passing in front of some charming hotels from the beginning of 1900 and the beautiful seat of the Yacht Club Como in its rationalist style. For my first day of training, the sun was bright and there were no clouds to be seen.
When you enter the hangar of the Aeroclub, you can only remain silent for a moment: a couple of Cessnas on floats are generally in the front row and when you look behind them you can’t miss a 1946 Seabee, a PA-18 amphibian, a Cessna ‘Bird Dog’ (305C) and then one of the most beautiful sea planes (and the oldest in its original configuration) still flying today, the 1935 Caproni Ca 100, restored by Gerolamo Gavazzi.
I was greeted by Paolo, my instructor, and we started the briefing. He explained the basic differences between land- and seaplanes, what circumstances are dangerous and how to assess the surface conditions. Then we headed to the pier where I-PVLC, a C172, was waiting for us. The pre-flight inspection is a bit different from the one I am used to: I had to learn a couple of sailing knots, spend some time to ‘read’ wind and water and consider the waves when measuring the fuel with the dip-stick. Oh… and of course, not to fall in the water when the waves lifted by some large boat reach the plane.
It is normal to find water in the floats: when landing on water, the floats are subject to hard contact with the water surface. In order to resist, the floats need to have some degree of elasticity, which, on the other hand, allows water to penetrate. So a key part of the pre-flight is to empty residual water from the floats.
We finally sat in Lima-Charlie. Half-way through the checklist I finally fired the engine and took a moment to enjoy the sound of the Lycoming O-320. I love the scale of sounds it produces compared to a relatively high-pitch Rotax.
Once the engine is running the sea plane is constantly in motion as there are no breaks. To steer it, small water rudders at the end of each floater are lowered and are controlled with the pedals. No matter what, when on the water the pilot must generally apply some back pressure to the elevator in order to prevent the propeller from hitting the water or to avoid flipping when taxiing at high speed.
After warming up the engine, we eventually lined up for runway 01 (AD chart available here), ran through the last checks and applied full power to the Lycoming. The take off from water requires much more energy than form paved surfaces. When the plane accrues speed, it initially pitches up because of the pressure applied on the elevator and soon touches the water only with the small surface around the step at the end of the keel. At that moment it is fundamental to adopt an attitude that reduces the drag with the water as much as possible. Once adopted the right pitch angle, this must be kept till the plane lifts off. There is no rotation when taking off from water: if the tails of the floats sink back into the water they will slow down the plane and retard or make impossible to become airborne.
Lima-Charlie accelerated smoothly over the waters of the lake and after not long the noise and the vibration of the high-speed run on the water disappeared and the plane was in the air.
The floats change quite radically the distribution of weight in the plane. Compared to a normal C172 rolling seems to be much easier. However, a lot more action is required on the rudder pedals to counter the inverse yaw.
After adapting myself to these aspects, I could enjoy a bit of the breath-taking view.
Under Paolo’s instructions I prepared for the first sea landing. The first thing to assess, particularly in some narrow parts of the lake, is the wind direction. Waves, Sailboats and smoke are particularly helpful for this purpose. Then a pilot must assess the conditions of the water. Landings over glassy surfaces are very complicated because the pilot is not able to assess precisely the distance from the water. Touching the water with a nose-down attitude may have catastrophic consequences. Another risk is that of stalling while the plane is still considerably high above the surface.
In the following 8 hours (divided in 7 flights and with 3 very experienced FIs), I got to practice different techniques for take off and landing, I managed to land on a river and had fun water-taxiing at high speed to learn how the plane behaves on the water.
Adopting the right pitch angle for each phase of flight is possibly the single most important piece of advice. At one point during the training, the instructor covered with a post-it note the airspeed indicator, altimeter, VSI, RPMs indicator and made me repeat all different types of landings. I loved to fly the Cessna relying on the seat-of-the-pants. On one hand, it made me pay more attention to the machine rather than the indication and by doing so establishing a much stronger connection with the plane. On the other, the Cessna revealed itself as a pilot-friendly bird that can communicate with the pilot very effectively through the noise of the engine, the intensity of the stall warning (most sea landings happen with the stall warning horn blowing loudly) and the change in pressure perceived on the yokes when it enters into ground-effect, instants before touch-down.
After the 8 hours of training, I felt comfortable with the machine and all techniques part of the test. Needless to say, that there are many other manoeuvres that I need and want to learn during my next trips to Como.
If any of you is even remotely interested in trying a seaplane, then I can only recommend that you do so as soon as possible! I loved every minute and every mile of it, regardless whether in the air or on the water… and now seaplanes are the main component of my aviation dreams!
In addition, I had a truly great experience in Como: I found the level of the instruction genuinely high and came back with notions I can use in my normal flights with a land plane. On top of that, flying at Aeroclub Como truly brings together the beauty of this segment of aviation with the charm and the traditions of one of the finest regions in Italy.
If you have any question, feel free to send me a message. I am happy to share more about my experience.
Should you be more curious, you can find a lot at the FAA website, which made available a lot of cool materials here
As usual, no part of this post should be interpreted as an instruction, an advice or a solicitation of any type.