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A new dawn for water aviation in Europe

A bright past

Seaplanes carry with them a charm that no other plane type has.

Difficult to say why. In our heads they certainly recall images of movies like Indiana Jones, The Aviator or Porco Rosso.

A scene from Indiana Jones: the Raiders of the Lost Ark

At the beginning of aviation, water planes enjoyed at least as much fortune as land planes. Indeed, the possibility to use immense water bodies to take off and splash down, seemed a better alternative to unpaved short grass strips and flying boats were generally flying the longest intercontinental routes, like that from Australia to UK by Qantas.

Historic events of astonishing importance like the Schneider Trophy or the “Decennial Air Cruise”, led by Italo Balbo, were also conducted with seaplanes. The speed record for piston-engine powered aircraft was for a few years the one that the famous Macchi Castoldi – MC72, one of the most magnificent machines ever designed, scored in 1934.

However, after this initial and relatively long-lasting period of success, during World War II, seaplanes let the pace to faster and more agile land planes. Seaplanes found more commonly employment as support vehicles.

Following the end of the war, seaplanes in Europe lost little by little their status. Water aerodromes were closed, or simply forgotten, one after the other, and this beautiful way of flying was kept alive only by a handful of passionate aviators and organisations, like Aeroclub Como, active since the 1930s. Very different was the fate of hydroplanes in North America, where, due to geographical and social characteristics, seaplanes kept being designed, produced and employed without particular hiccups.

Back to the future

In the last few years, however, water aviation in Europe gains momentum once more. It’s hopefully a new dawn for water aviation in Europe. The credit goes once more to the relentless work of a few pilots and clubs.

The upcoming establishment of a European Seaplane Pilot Federation is a great signal. In facts, representatives from 14 states met in Mallorca in September 2021 for the first European Hydroaviation Congress. They agreed to establish a pan European Association with the purpose to lobby for uniform and more understanding set of rules for seaplane across the EU. Indeed, General Aviation overall enjoys uniform application of rules across the Continent. Sadly, water aviation falls still somehow hostage to national waterways rules. The result is an unjustified hinderance to its existence or its ability to develop.

In Italy, Aviazione Marittima Italiana (Italian Maritime Aviation) made stunning progress. Together with Regions and Municipalities, the association founded by Orazio Frigino and Graziano Mazzolari, maker of amphibian floats for ultralight aircraft, signed several memoranda of understanding to reopen historic water aerodromes across the Country. The main goal to create some viable stop-over bases for seaplane pilots travelling across the Continent.

Unexpected growth during Covid-19

Indeed, in the context of the Covid pandemic, general aviation grew markedly in several EU countries. Travellers looked for alternatives to airline flying. General Aviation, unknown by many before, succeeded in acquiring some considerable portion of the market. The water aviation segment benefitted of this trend, too. As a matter of facts, various entrepreneurs and companies moved the first steps. Some Aviation Authorities already issued approvals for Seaplane AOCs. Connecting wealthy cities with holiday destinations on coasts of lakes and seas represents the main target. The use of existing waterways, allows to avoid the high costs related to airport slots and handling fees. In addition, companies have already eyed the feasibility of routes between Italy and Greece, where, for instance, Hellenic Seaplanes is ready to start operations in 2022 with a fleet of modern Twin Otters.

Back to the glamour

Against this backdrop, seaplanes are back to charm the public with more than just connecting two places. As Richard Bach splendidly captured in one article, if you asked random pilots why they fly, almost nobody would answer “to fly from A to B”.

And indeed the beauty of the seaplane lies in the very machine and its possibilities. Imagine to dock at the pier of a lakeside town in Italy. Drink a freshly brewed espresso at the local yacht club. Then hop on again, maybe with a friend, to look at the beautiful Villas from the best angle, from just below 2000 feet.

Villa del Balbianello, Lake Como

On the East side of the Adriatic sea, Dragisa Raicevic, President of the Seaplane Regatta MontAdria, launched a second edition of the rally. Around 30 seaplane crews will come to Montenegro, in the first week of June 2022. It will be an incredible occasion to connect with seaplane pilots and makers. Moreover, Montenegro with its history, geography and culture, is the perfect link between Europe and East.

With the ongoing pandemic it’s hard to make strong commitments. However, we work to launch some seaplane events at the end of Summer 2022. Come check for more information in these pages soon!

Some additional materials

The Voyage of the Southern Sun: in 2015 Michael Smith started the circumnavigation of the globe aboard of a small Rotax-powered Searey. Don’t miss the DVD and the book he wrote.

Gli Scarponi del Cielo (Scarponi literally means boots, but it’s a colloquial term to mean floats) – a vintage short movie, directed by Antonio Leidi in the 1960s. it shows unique views of Lake Como and the life of seaplane pilots.

Collection of seaplane flights and events starring the ICP Savannah on floats

Porco Rosso – An amazing animation movie by Hayao Miyazaki. It takes place in Italy in the age of the seaplanes (a fictional early XX century). It features, a pig and a reinterpreted red Siai S21.

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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?