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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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Learning to ‘Bush Fly’ (#1)

Aviation is a universe full of very diverse planets. Commercial aviation, for instance, is a highly regulated bureaucratic world where every minute counts, where computers are everywhere and where, despite the beauty and complexity of the machines used, ultimately what counts is to meet the purpose of transporting people and goods from A to B in the most efficient way.

But for some pilots the pleasure of flying comes from the ability to interact with nature, to fly free from ATC orders and, sometimes, to tame a difficult animal. I love all type of planes and all segments of aviation, but there is a particular one that caught my attention and fantasies lately and that’s ‘Bush Flying’.

We generally talk about Bush Flying referring to flights conducted in zones of wild nature, like Alaska or in Africa, and no paved runways to land. I link this to the highest degree of freedom a pilot can experience: fly where you want and land where you want. Because of the difficult terrains, bush planes need to meet strict requirements: they need to have a high take off and landing performance, they need to be robust and their gears need to be sufficiently elastic to absorb the shocks coming from the manoeuvres on the ground.

Private bush flying in Europe is mostly done with ultralight aircrafts, because, according to EASA regulations, General Aviation aircrafts are generally prevented from landing outside certified airports. Differently, Ultralights are not regulated by European regulations and fall under national jurisdiction.

 

 

 

So, I had to decide where to move my first step towards bush flying and the perfect choice sounded like Brescia, in Italy. Indeed, there is a bush flying school there featuring one of the finest pilots (Fabio Guerra, former military pilot, B777 captain and famous bush test pilot and instructor) and one of the nicest bush planes one can find around here, i.e. the Savage Cub from Zlin Aviation.
A nice story about Zlin is that about their appearance at Valdez last summer. Indeed, the ‘Shock Cub’ (an incredibly performing cubber with slats and slotted flaps) of Zlin Aviation made a great debut arriving third in Valdez last summer, but what a lot of people don’t know, is that Zlin’s official test pilot was not available to fly it in that occasion. So, it was flown by a pilot that had practised only a handful of hours before the competition, instead.
The other reasons to choose Italy were that ultralights can land wherever the pilot deems appropriate as long as the land owner agrees and that the beauty and variety of the Italian landscape is unmatched in Europe.

Renato, the President of Scuola Volo Brescia, guided me through the main differences between General Aviation and ultralights and then showed me the Hangar of the school were a nice selection of ‘Cubbers’ were lined up in different set-ups. Proper Bush Flying will start only after I feel perfectly comfortable on the Cub and after the instructor feels comfortable with me being alone on the Cub.

So, finally came the moment to hop on the yellow Savage Cub for our first mission. The set of instrument looked rather minimal to me, but given the weight restrictions and that most flights are local and conducted in good weather it makes sense.

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We started training with some taxiing on ground. This is, indeed, the real difficult part of handling taildraggers. The reason is that the center of gravity of the plane is located behind the main gear and this feature makes tailspins easy to happen.

After a few back-and-forths on the runway, increasing the speed to train the control on ground we went for a flight. The Savage Cub is a lovely machine. You feel in contact with every part of the plane: you can feel the RPMs with your fingertips and the drag of the airflow when pulling down the flaps. Fabio showed me the slow-flying capability of the machine which are simply astonishing. With full flaps and maximum power the plane can remain in the air with the airspeed indicator close to 0. When stalling, the Savage Cub drops a wing, but the control on the rudder remains very good.

I performed a few steep turns, which in that plane means being able to circle over a tennis court and then we headed back to the patter for some touch and goes.

Landing on the Savage Cub proved to be the training I was looking for. While most tricycle will forgive you a slightly sloppy alignment with the center line and, once on the ground, the pilot can generally relax the muscles, the Cub demands perfect alignment and until the plane is halted on ground, attention must be kept to its maximum.

45 minutes passed in the blink of an eye. We had a quick lunch in a local ‘Trattoria’ and then headed back to the airfield for another session.

I felt more confident and excited, but the task was made tougher by a quick shower that passed by. The rain covering the windshield and the low contrast of the grass runway made almost impossible for me to estimate the distance from ground. We went around, and at the following round I managed to use some more peripheral vision to calculate the distance and made a rather good landing for the standard of the day.

We trained traffic patterns until the rain became too intense and we had to stop. I was mentally depleted, but I had one of the most satisfying flight training sessions in my life.

I was happy, at intervals I managed to ‘tame’ the Cub.