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Crash in Como

In September, 1984 Franco Cereda, my erstwhile companion of 4 vacations and some 60 dives in the Maldive Islands and with a flying license obtained in Como at the local aeroclub (founded in 1913) - invited me to share his experiences, i.e. to get a seaplane rating, shortly after I had acquired my Private Pilot License. We arranged to meet at his aero club early in the afternoon of a Saturday (September 15) when their instructor would be available, in his opinion a better option than on Sundays, when the latter's role was taken over by the club's President.

I left Milan after lunch in unsettled weather, arriving in a windy and wet Como. My friend was waiting for me outside the closed doors of the club hangar. He had tried vainly to call me on the phone and warn me that flights were off that day due to the prevailing met conditions, but I was already on the way.

Como's Aeroclub hangar (bottom right, next to soccer stadium)

Since I was there, he opened up the hangar doors to show me their aircraft. After a half hour or so, we went outside and saw two people arriving, the club President Cesare Musumeci and Luigi Mazzola - a pilot trainee whom I later I saw crewing an Alitalia MD80 Milan-Rome flight as First Officer. I was introduced, and the President said: "C'mon, weather's improving, let's get a plane out and go for a spin.". We dragged out a Cessna FR 172K with floats and climbed aboard, they in the front seats and we in the back.

The first half hour or so was tuition for the trainee, then we landed on the lake and exchanged places. In my total inexperience, it took me some time to take off, the plane would lift then bounce back down on the water, but eventually I managed and we flew north-east into a gusty wind. Abeam the point of Bellagio, we turned south-east towards Lecco but were met by worsening weather with increasing rain, so it was decided to return to Como and call it a day, the President taking over the controls.

Below, the approximate route of this part of our flight (in yellow the trainee's section, in blue mine, in red the President's).

When Como was in sight, the pilot noticed that the lake was a bit ruffled in the area marked by buoys for seaplane landings, and made this memorable remark: "The lake is rough, this plane is new and I don't want it damaged, let's land to the right."

His idea was to descend further east into the calmer waters in the lee of Punta Geno . However, a ferry was crossing the area and therefore he started a standard 360° turn, which takes 2-3' to complete and would have let the ferry pass through. His intended manoeuvre is more or less depicted at left below. However, he did not allow for the wind gusting at 20-25 knots, and it became more as shown at right.


In other words, the north wind was first abeam and pushed us towards the shore then, as we offered our tail, it decreased our lift and made us lose altitude. I was indeed noticing that we appeared to be lower and closer to land than expected but, as a novice, I made no mention of it, trusting a much more experienced pilot. Suddenly, we were facing Como's Monumento ai Caduti (Fallen Soldiers' Memorial), 100 feet of solid granite towering OVER us. Someone in the back shouted: "Cesare, what the fuck are you doing?".

To be honest, the pilot's reaction was the only one affording some vague chances. The monument was too close for a tighter left turn or an overflight, and he turned to the right while the stall-warning buzzer started its lugubrious music. I felt deeply saddened by the probability of dying in Como at 4:45PM of a mid-September afternoon.

Como's Memorial to Fallen Soldiers

Then the panorama changed to Como's Tempio Voltiano, another solid stone structure on the shore. I covered my face with my right arm in the expectation of the unavoidable crash awaiting us, since we were flying straight and truly towards its façade on an out-of-control aircraft.

The Tempio Voltiano, monument/museum to Como-born Alessandro Volta

Now something unexpected and unlikely occurred that saved us. As you can see, the Temple is delimited by a row of ornamental trees. Our plane flew almost straight through the crown of two of them, with the right wing hitting more heavily one of them which imparted a brusque clockwise momentum that turned our aircraft 270° and made us land - tail first - a few feet off and parallel to the façade on the lawn.

The expected, heavy crash did not materialise, the sudden deceleration made me hit my knees against the instrument panel, and suddenly everything was silent and motionless. I uncovered my eyes and saw where we were, noticing that we were leaning to one side and that some fuel was dripping down on the lawn from our left wing.

Some backseater now shouted: "Turn everything off!". Fuel was seeping out of the ruptured tank in the right wing, too, but into our cockpit. I turned off all I could think of and tried to get out, but my door was warped and would not open. The trainee started kicking it from the back, and I was eventually able to force it open and wobble out.

The three of us were standing shakily beside the wreck when someone asked: "Where's that damn idiot of a pilot?". He was still in the cockpit, face against the windhsield, having been knocked unconscious after hitting it hard. Some time later I found a shard of windshield plexiglass in a trouser pocket - heaven knows how it got there.

In the meantime, people had started gathering near us, including a local constable and later an ambulance whose medics extracted the pilot from the plane and drove him to a local hospital. Fortunately for him, he had only broken his nose and gashed a cheek, mended with a few stitches.

Newspaper articles and photos covering our accident

We three "walking wounded" were led to the nearby Yacht Club, where they revived our spirits with a few tumblers of cognac. Then one of my fellow survivors said: "At the accident inquiry, let's say that the crash was caused by a sudden, unexpected downdraft", to which I relplied: "Like hell it was!!!" Fortunately for Como's Aero Club, I was not summoned to testify at the inquiry, and the heavy damages to the plane were refunded by their insurance company.

The bad weather was one of the reasons of our mishap, but also caused the area where we struck to be deserted that day, while usually rather crowded on weekends by strollers.

The last photo above is a framed assemblage of news items covering the accident from Como's Provincia, a local paper and Il Giorno, a national paper. Also framed is Como's Aero Club sticker - I was NOT asked to pay for the flying lesson - and a £ 10,000 banknote issued a few months later, NOT in our revered memory .

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