Italy’s GA scene is thriving – and it’s a great place for a flying holiday
By Geoff JonesI like to travel as much as possible and have made many flying friends in different parts of the world. One of my favourite countries for aviation trips is Italy. Last summer I made two journeys there, one to the South and another to the North. In both areas I was struck by just how lively the Italians are when it comes to private aviation.
After my commercial flight into Naples-Capodichino airport, I knew I was in Southern Italy when I picked up a copy of the Italian aviation magazine Volare for up-to-the-minute news of what was happening. On seeing the magazine title, the fellow manning the checkout burst into a spontaneous rendition of the Dean Martin song ‘Volare’. Smiles, laughter and applause from the other customers – not the reaction you’d get in WH Smith, and perhaps not in the northern part of the country, where people are a touch more reserved. My destination on this trip was the newly refurbished airport at Salerno, which has a longer runway a new VOR/DME, a new terminal built and its first scheduled air service, to Milan. However the focus of my visit was the GA scene – there has been a thriving aeroclub here since the days when it was a grass field shared with an Italian Army liaison wing. Bizjets patronise the airport and there is a parachute school there. This is Italy’s deep south, which like America’s, is hotter, drier and more idiosyncratic and more partisan than the north. Wildfires in California are widely reported in the UK, but the Italians are equally plagued by them and have fleets of aeroplanes and helicopters standing by to prevent them. The Amalfi Coast south of Naples has horrendous road access problems – many villas, villages and towns clinging to the sides of mountains – and plenty of wildfires. Attack from the air is the only solution.SCOOPING SEAWATERTwo Air Tractor AT-802 amphibians, known as ‘Fire Boss’ were on the apron, chartered by the Protezione Civile from the Spanish for the 2008 ‘season’. These fight small fires in urban areas. I also saw some amphibious Bombardier Cl-415 turboprop fire bombers; the Italians have fifteen. These call regularly at Salerno to fuel. Unlike many American operators, these aircraft don’t carry fire retardant: they drop down to the sea, scoop up six thousand litres of salt water (it takes just twelve seconds) and then fly to the target, either to douse the flames, or to damp down the ashes. Firefighting helicopters also take on fuel at Salerno, from smaller Eurocopter AS.350’s to huge Erickson Air Cranes chartered in from North America. Last, but not least, in this fleet are three Super Cubs. These are based at Salerno and carry loudspeakers. The pilots fly slowly around a fire and direct firefighters and civilians, shouting down to the latter the direction in which to escape. Adding to the variety, there’s a banner towing company based here, which flies along the Mediterranean shoreline in a Super Cub. Great work if you can get it, I should think. The advent of commercial services has bought with it a new control tower, but as yet there is no ILS or radar here and arrivals are controlled by the Naples CTR until established visually with the field. There are taxis and hire car companies to take you into town, but the nearby port city of Salerno is nothing to write home about – it’s the Campania region’s hinterland that is more appealing and then westward, the Amalfi Coast. This has towns with lovely names like Maiori, Amalfi, Positano, Ravello and Sorrento and hillsides laden with villas that plunge steeply down to the Mediterranean, where richly coloured oleanders, bougainvillaea, magnolias and sub-tropical vegetation thrive.
There is currently no resident Customs service at Salerno airport, so your arrival must be national unless you’ve taken the option of pre-booked Customs. This will soon change as more commercial flights are introduced (direct to Spain and to Romania are planned). SKIRTING VESUVIUSLeaving Salerno, I took the autostradas around Naples, skirting Vesuvius, which, by the way is visible on long final approach for Naples-Capodicino’s runway. I could have dropped in to see Vesuvius and to view the remains of ancient Pompeii, but chose to visit the Tecnam factory instead. Tecnam was started in 1986, and grew out of Partenavia, which explains the ‘P’ designation in Tecnams. Partenavia’s first design, the P.48-B Astore first flew in 1950. It looked like a Piper Vagabond. In 1958, the company produced an all-metal twoseater called the P.57 Fachiro, that resembled a Cessna 150. A four-seater, the P.66 Charlie arrived in 1967. These designs were built in their hundreds and were popular with Italian flying clubs. I was eager to see the new Tecnam twin, the P.2006T. This first flew in 2007 and remarkably is powered by two 100hp Rotax 912S engines So far only two have been flown. It resembles the more conventional (in engine terms) Partenavia P.68 twin and is a four-seater. It has an incredible short-field performance and can be safely flown from farm strips. With a basic price of Euro 275,000 it’s not surprising that sixty orders have already been placed around the world, even though it doesn’t yet have FAA approval and isn’t yet available in America. The US debut will be at Sun ’n Fun in April. Rather unexpectedly (which is why this isn’t a Pilot flight test) I was offered a sample flight in the P.2006T. My mentor for the flight was Tecnam’s chief test pilot Enzo de Blasio. He pointed out the differences in the two prototypes, one with a glass cockpit but plain wingtips, and the other – which I would be flying – with winglets and analogue instruments. The standard cockpit fit will be twin Garmin G.950s. Everything on the P.2006T except the upper vertical tail can be inspected from the ground without the aid of steps. I admired the retractable undercarriage and the two Rotax 912S3 with their MT constant speed, fully feathering propellers at head height.There are two extremely large access doors to the cockpit, one on the right for the pilot and co-pilot and one on the left under the wing, for the rear two seats. There is a huge luggage space behind these. Construction is mainly aluminium. The high wing is unusual for a twin in this class but it certainly gives a tremendous, unobstructed view for the two front seat occupants; the passengers behind aren’t so lucky. The switches for the engines (starter, fuel pump, ignition) are in a small panel at head height. With power on, the starting process is easy, just as in a Rotax-powered light single, only times two. No choke required in the Italian summer. The seating position is more upright than in many light aircraft, adjustable on runners and great for the rudder pedals, toe brakes, yoke and throttle controls. My only criticism at this point was a lack of cockpit ventilation, as we had to taxi with the door cracked open. LUMPS AND BUMPSThe Tecnam airfield, Oreste Salmone at Capua, is rough. I was following through on the controls but glad to let Enzo have control. The P.2006T handled the confined spaces and the bumps easily and as I soon found out, the long grass, rutted and bumpy dirt strip at Oreste Salmone as well. It was comforting to know that the engines and propellers are well clear of the surface. We were about to take off with a temperature of 29�C, no wind, two-up and with half tanks (100litres). Enzo set first stage on the electric flaps, lined up and applied full power. We shot off the blocks and I was amazed as we left the bumpy field behind indicating 50kt. We had rotated in little more than 150 metres. Enzo flicked up the undercarriage switches and we climbed initially at 500fpm indicating first 90kt, then quickly building to 110kt. The airspace around Capua is extremely busy with both civilian and military operations – we were restricted to 1,500ft and heading for the Mediterranean coast near Mondregone for some handling and manoeuvring. Enzo established an economy cruise speed of 135kt very quickly, trimmed out and soon we were showing a miserly fuel consumption of just 36l/h (8gph) – in a twin! Enzo asked for my attention, cut the starboard engine and feathered the prop. More power to the port engine, plenty of rudder and retrimming saw us maintaining level flight and 105kt. The aircraft remained fully controllable on one engine, even when Enzo manoeuvred it about to show what it could do. After restoring twin power he invited me to follow him on the controls while he flew some steep, g-pulling turns. The stall, which he showed me next with full flap, came at 47kt. I wanted to re-experience the short-field performance of the P.2006T, so we flew to a 350m (1,148ft) grass and dirt ultralight strip at Castel Volturno. You just wouldn’t contemplate this in a Seneca or Duchess. After a banking approach to avoid some trees and touching down at the threshold at 50kt indicated, Enzo bought us to a full stop – with slight touches to the toe brakes – in just over 100m. Incredible! He then dropped me so that I could shoot some ground-to-air photographs and took off in a cloud of dust and debris in about the same distance. We could quite easily have been in the African bush. LAND OF THE MOZZARELLAThe superb cockpit visibility came into its own as we headed back to Oreste Salmone at Capua. The sky was filled with ultralights and military helicopters, but I still had plenty of opportunity to admire the relatively green Volturno river valley (lots of black cattle and mozzarella originates here) and the nearby mountains. This would make a brilliant observation aeroplane and with its STOL capability and ability to easily remain airborne on one engine, I can see the military taking an interest. Enzo invited me to land the aircraft. The great forward view and responsive controls made the approach easy to fly. For such a clean design, I had less difficulty than expected in getting it to slow down to 100kt for lowering the flaps. I then found it easy to slow to 90kt for dropping the undercarriage. There wasn’t a crosswind – perhaps just as well with a high-wing aeroplane with winglets. By short final I had the speed down to 55kt. I kept the nose up as the mainwheels touched. The nosewheel lowered itself soon afterwards. I didn’t bother to use brakes, because the aeroplane ran to a stop in very little distance without them. A few days after that unforgettable flight found me back at Naples-Capodicino airport for my international flight home. This time there was no tenor at the newsstand and the airport was overrun with Russian holidaymakers.NORTHERN ITALYMy second trip was to Italy’s northern plain, a very different region from the hot, arid south. The North is a mixture of industry, agriculture and a phenomenal cultural heritage. Verona, Padova, Vicenza, Ferarra and the jewel in the crown, Venice, just some of the gorgeous cities of this V�neto region. It is also remarkably flat – until you travel to the pre-Alps north of the A.4 autostrada that runs between Venice and Milan – thus a great place for small airfields. At weekends this part of Italy from the Alps south to the Po river, comes alive with ultralight pilots flipping from field-to-field or just hanging out for a few coffees, a couple of circuits and ‘aeroplane-speak’ Italian style. These small grass fields – we’d call them strips – have developed in the last twenty years, simultaneously with the growth of the ultralight aircraft movement in Italy. Around ten thousand ultralights now fly in Italy, most of them below 1,000ft, mainly outside controlled airspace and at a maximum gross weight of 450kg or below. Flaunting the rules and regulations? – undoubtably. Fun? A resounding ‘yes’. These regulations concern the divide between ultralight and conventional general aviation aircraft. Fly ultralight, fly economically. Fly general aviation and the expense rockets. I was openly told that the official weighing process often takes place when no equipment is installed, no paint applied and in some instances no brakes and wheels! As long as the maximum takeoff weight does not exceed 450kg then it’s an ultralight.Some Italian pilots are even registering their aircraft in San Marino, a flag of convenience, certainly as far as aircraft weight is concerned. The other requirement is Euro 5 million third party insurance. ACES HIGHDuring the Great War, RFC units flew Sopwith Camels and Bristol Fighters from airfields in this region. Those fields are long gone now, though. To find the many small airfields that cover the region today, you need the Avio Portolano – Guida al Volo Turistico e Sportivo. It costs Euro 25 and lists camping facilities, hotels and restaurants as well as the airfield details. One of the many small, informal airfields that have sprung up in recent decades, and a personal favourite, is called Aviosuperfice Area-51. It’s near the town of Campodoro and a doddle to find from the air because its 3,000ft north/south grass runway ends close to the intersection of the A.4 autostrada and main railway line between Padova and Vicenza. The airfield has its own restaurant and 50 small private hangars. Andrea Rossetto is a regional controller in Northern Italy’s equivalent of Swanwick, but does his flying from Area-51. He’s just completed the restoration of the 1947 Macchi featured in January Pilot and rents one of the small hangars. This, including landing fees, costs him Euro 170 a month. There’s no formal air traffic control, although at busy weekends the airfield manager will use a handheld on the Italian club frequency of 130.00 to advise traffic. There’s no fuel here either, so there’s lots of carting of cans of mogas and dispensing through funnels going on at the start of a flying day. Come the evening, the awning-covered terrace outside Christina’s restaurant becomes the gathering place for pilots. A public footpath runs past the airfield and many locals also drop in for a beer. I was invited for some aerial sightseeing over the historic city of Padova, which meant entering controlled airspace. Padova International is not the busiest of airports, and permission was granted for us to cross the extended approach and make several orbits over Padova’s two main landmarks, the huge central market and the magnificent cathedral, St Anthony’s Duomo.CASTLE PILOT Heading south-west from Area 51 on another flight, after a quarter of an hour we had reached the grass strip at Montegaldella. On the way, we flew over the castle, complete with fortifications, moat and drawbridge that is the home of airfield owner, millionaire and antique aircraft enthusiast, Luciano Sorlini. Now in his early eighties, he made his fortune selling explosives to the mining industry. Since acquiring his first classic aircraft, a Saab 91C Safir, in 1955, his collection has grown to eight. If you fly in Italy, Sorlini Motori Avio is a name you’ll come across often. As well as his aircraft maintenance business at Montegaldella (working on two Breitling Team SIAI SF.260s during my visit) he has the Italian agency for Rotax engines and is a distributor for Lycoming, Bendix and Hoffman. He also owns facilities at Breccia airport and co-owns Venice Lido airport. Do visit the latter if you get the chance; its Art Deco terminal has just been restored and is quite gorgeous. Montegaldella’s grass runway is 650 metres long. The airfield carries fuel but phone to check 0444/635048). Another trip I made from Area 51 was in Luigi Ricci’s 1941 Aeronca Chief, this time heading north-west to the pre-Alps and Thiene, another oasis of Italian general aviation, particularly at the weekends. The airport restaurant is famous among pilots and we were lucky to get a table for eight on a Saturday lunchtime. As well as the pasta (always good in Italy), I recommend the tiramisu, creamy, chocolatey and sweet and unlike anything I’ve tasted before under this name. If you are not flying, do have a jug of their wine: cool, quaffable and cheap. Vicenza airport to the south was temporarily closed for runway repairs, so even though Thiene only has a 3,000ft (900m) grass strip I saw several light twins flying in. Avgas cost two Euros a litre at the time of my visit, incidentally. Thiene is a popular gliding base, the local Stinson L-5 Sentinel (of which many are still active in Italy on tug duties) being continuously operational, towing Italian and German gliders to the skies to take advantage of the thermal and wave activity on this southern edge of the Alps. Skydive Thiene is also based here, very active and currently using an unusual turbo-powered Russian Technoavia SMG-92T Finist.
Thiene is also home for some of the aircraft of a relatively new Italian organisation the HAG Italy (Historical Aircraft Group). The latest arrival was an Italian Air Force F.104 Starfighter.TOURING ADVENTURESWhile there, I met Marcello Meggiorin who owns a much-modified Evektor EV-97 Eurostar. He has bought an apartment in the Cape Verde Islands, off the coast of west Africa, and last year decided to fly himself there in his EV-97 for a holiday. Across southern France, Spain to Morocco and then down to Mauritania before the four-hour over-water flight behind a Rotax 912 engine – 27 hours flying time. He’s currently obtaining a US PPL in Boston, to get round the restrictions of his Italian ultralight licence. Touring by car, this is Italy’s agricultural heartland of vegetables, corn and the vines. There are plenty of bed and breakfasts, small hotels and restaurants. To the southwest of Padova, an area of volcanically formed hills, hot-springs and thermal pools, the Parco Regionale di Colli Eug�nei has been popular with Italians even before the ancient Romans for the taking of waters and for mud baths. It’s also a pleasant area for walking. From the highest point, Monte Roa at 1,364ft, on a clear day you can see Venice and the lagoon.