Situated in northern Italy near the Swiss border, Lake Como has been attracting tourists ever since Julius Caesar.
Although most visitors end up seeing portions of its 106 mile shoreline from one of the many excursion boats plying the beautiful blue-green waters, Lake Como offers unparalleled vistas best appreciated from the air … and especially from a seaplane.
I first became aware of the opportunity to fly seaplanes at Lake Como when a friend from Chattanooga earned his seaplane rating at Aero Club Como several years ago while on vacation.
Then, last year the Florida-based Seaplane Pilots Association (SPA) organized a group trip that got rave reviews.
Frustrated by being unable to join in at the time, I added Lake Como to my personal bucket list. A recent business and pleasure trip to Italy opened the door to this memorable flying experience.
First introduced at Lake Como in 1913, seaplane flying has a long history in the area. Aero Club Como has been offering seaplane rides and instruction since 1930, making it the oldest seaplane operation in the world.
Although operated as a non-profit and led by its volunteer members, the club is professional in every way, including a staff of four mechanics experienced in seaplane maintenance.
Based at a large waterfront hangar and ramp within walking distance from our hotel in downtown Como, the club has its own designated water runway and a unique variety of seaplanes in its fleet, including a 1930 Caproni CA-100 on wooden floats, the oldest seaplane still in airworthy condition.
The club has about 120 local members and about 115 foreign members, plus a couple of hundred European pilots who come to fly every year, but do not join the club.
Although Cessna 172s on straight floats comprise most of the club’s fleet, it also offers flights in a Piper Super Cub, a Cessna O-1 Bird Dog, and a Cessna 206. A Republic Seabee flying boat is currently being restored to flying condition.
Lake Buccaneer and Renegade amphibians were once popular in the club. However, since wind and boat wakes generate rough conditions better suited to float-equipped planes, the Lakes have been mostly phased out, although there is still a privately-owned Turbo Renegade operated on Lake Como by a club member.
Host for our recent early-morning flight was Cesare Baj, president emeritus of Aero Club Como and CEO of the local newspaper and TV station. A seaplane pilot since 1970, Baj, 67, also coordinated last year’s SPA trip.
After learning to fly exclusively in seaplanes, it took him several years to get around to transitioning to land planes.
He has written several aviation books, including the original Italian edition of “Seaplane Operations,” the English edition of which was revised by Dr. Dale DeRemer.
The renaissance man and his son are also currently reviving a 250-year-old family business to produce and market Panettone Baj sweet bread cakes.
In order to graciously include our traveling companions in the flight, their first in a seaplane, Baj elected to use the club’s U.S.-registered Cessna 206 Stationair on straight PK 3500 floats, N206BJ.
Features of the plane include a Robertson STOL kit, Flint wing tip extensions, a Continental IO-550 engine conversion, a quiet 78-inch propeller, and a right front door installed by Wipaire.
Due to intense weekend boat traffic, Baj delayed our flight from Sunday afternoon to Monday morning, but even early on a weekday he had to deal with waves generated by a steady stream of excursion boats coming and going from the nearby downtown docks.
However, he obviously felt very comfortable at the controls of the large seaplane, which handled the rough water well.
Along with our friends, my wife and I spent Sunday being Lake Como tourists. We rode the hydrofoil “fast boat” north on the lake to the town of Bellagio, which is known for its variety of shops.
While there we toured the mountain-top property owned by the Rockefeller Foundation, which is used as a retreat for artists and authors.
Riding on the “slow boat” back to Como allowed us to stop and tour a villa that has been converted into a museum.
Our view from the boat could not compare with the unique low-altitude over-water perspective that only a seaplane can offer safely. Lake Como, known for its palatial water-front villas, spread out before us and we could only imagine what it would be like to live there.
As I quickly began to over-use the word “wow,” Baj pointed out the villa that actor George Clooney has owned since 2001, which is now reportedly for sale. His neighbor is fashion designer Donatella Versace.
When Baj offered me the controls, I was glad to have a chance to log some seaplane time. However, with the fantastic view unfolding everywhere I looked, it was hard to concentrate on flying.
Although this was only the first week in September, I noticed that a light layer of snow had fallen on the highest Alps in the distance and another “wow” slipped out as we made our turn from north to south.
As the city of Como came into view, I turned the controls back to Baj and his downwind approach took us over the red-tiled roofs and narrow streets of downtown.
The club’s water runway is outlined with buoys and soon we were back at the dock.
Unfortunately, an afternoon business appointment in Milan required us to expedite our goodbyes. As we started walking to the train station, Baj waved and rode off to work on his scooter.
Due to extreme traffic congestion and a shortage of parking in Como, Baj owns three motorbikes and only one car, which should probably have one of those bumper stickers that reads “My Other Car is an Airplane.”
Aero Club Como welcomes visitors to book sightseeing and instructional flights. An introductory flight that a typical tourist couple would book to fly over the central portion of Lake Como is offered for 180 Euros ($212).
Since hotels in the resort area can be expensive, the club also offers those seeking ratings the option of staying at hostel-like living quarters located in a building behind the hangar.
Already have your seaplane rating?
The club’s planes can be rented solo by experienced seaplane pilots with a proper check-out.
Hourly rental charges, solo, in Euros and Dollars at current exchange rates:
- Cessna 172 160-hp, EDO 2130: Euro 196, ($230)
- Piper PA-18 Super Cub Amphibian 180-hp: Euro 208, ($245)
- Cessna C305 Bird Dog 213-hp: Euro 231, ($272)
- Cessna 172K Amphibian 195-hp: Euro 241, ($283)
- Cessna 206 300-hp IO-550 conversion: Euro 385, ($453)
- Dual instruction: Euro 70, ($82)
- Typical tourist sightseeing flight for two adults and a child in a 172: Euro 180, ($212).
What’s it like to fly on your own at Lake Como?
Ken Hunt of Chattanooga first told me about seaplane flying at Lake Como. He responded to my request for memories of his time there as follows:
It has been some years since I took the seaplane course at Lake Como in Italy, but the memories will always be with me. What better way to pair a wonderful family vacation with an opportunity to fly seaplanes in one of the most beautiful areas of the world?
In Chattanooga we typically avoid flying low and we stay clear of cliffs, but not so at Lake Como, where you often fly below and fairly close to the cliff tops. It is spectacular.
Not speaking Italian was never an issue, as my main instructor spoke English quite well.
Although scheduling seemed a little imprecise, there were plenty of opportunities to fly and be with the family. Because most flights were over the lake and at low altitude, the weather was rarely a problem.
With the weather being mostly a non-issue, it allowed a full complement of flight lessons to be condensed into the week, which in turn allowed for rapid advancement in my skills and comfort level landing in different water conditions on the lake.
The only negative I could point out was that I didn’t really understand when I made arrangements for the trip that I would not have a FAA seaplane rating at the end. Rather, I would have to come back to the states and take a series of flights (perhaps four hours minimum) with a U.S. instructor before being signed off for a FAA check ride.
Of course, at the time I was not aware of any solo seaplane rentals available in the U.S. and I didn’t plan on buying one, so I never followed through to get my U. S. rating.