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Low And Slow Over Italy


Low And Slow Over Italy

By Joe Thompson (14 April 2007)







"Traveling is almost like talking with men of other centuries." -- Rene Descartes


"The journey not the arrival matters." -- T.S. Eliot



Previous Mercator VA (http://www.flymercator.com/index.htm) adventures have carried us from the jungles of Thailand in a DC-6 to a cargo run from Osaka to Moscow aboard a C-130 Hercules. Later we flew around the Canadian Maritime Provinces in an NAMC YS-11 turboprop and more recently we've flown over the frozen tundra of Russia's Siberia in an Ilyushin 76TD aircraft. It's now time for a change of pace and this adventure definitely does just that. Last fall I toured Italy using a Beechcraft D18S, one of the most celebrated 'round engined' aircraft produced in the late 1930's. This aircraft can still be found flying today in many corners of the world. The Beech 18 is a joy to fly and transports its occupants not only from one place to another but also from the present to the past. So meet us out by the aircraft and get ready for another Mercator adventure.



Milan -- Verona -- Bolzano -- Trieste -- Asiago -- Bergamo -- Genoa -- Pisa -- Rome





Good friend Mauro, a B767/757 Captain with Air Italy based in Milan, was gracious enough to pick Byron and I up in the early morning hours and give us a lift to the north terminal of Milan's Malpensa Airport (LIMC/MXP).


"Signori di buona mattina" (Good Morning gentlemen) he said as we entered his car. "Not a very nice morning but it will burn off shortly." He was referring to the pewter colored hazy that had enveloped the airport in the night and now cut visibility dramatically. "It will be nice before you pass Bergamo mio amico (my friend)." Byron and I were leaving Milan this morning on a round-robin circuit of Italy flying our companies old Beechcraft D18S. Byron is my company's Vice President of Route Management. He and his team had worked with the Italian [MSOffice1] authorities for over a year to secure additional short-haul cargo and passenger routes within Italy for our company. That hard work had finally come to fruition and in celebration I had invited Byron to Italy from our Phoenix corporate headquarters to ride along on a low and slow junket around the country. I had ferried one of our companies' old, stalwart Beech 18 aircraft down from Norway several days before to be used as a short haul charter platform. We had 3 days available before the aircraft would be pressed into service so I decided to see Italy from the air; from the Alps in the North to the slopes of Sicily's Mount Etna in the south and from the island of Sardinia in the western Tyrrhenian Sea to the Adriatic Sea in the east.


Mauro pulled up to the curb in front of the T2 Terminal and we disembarked. When the idea for this trip originally came to me I had asked Mauro if he was interested in accompanying us as our Italian tour guide. Although he was thrilled at the prospect he had to decline due to a scheduled trip. In fact as Mauro sped away from the curb he was headed to the west side of the airport to take command of a B757, which he would be piloting down to Zanzibar and Mozambique in a couple hours.


We grabbed our bags and entered the terminal and after some 'dead-reckoning' I found the dispatch office. After the paperwork was completed we made our way to the shuttle van stand for transport out to the aircraft. Since Byron was not a pilot I would be doing all the flying which was great because the Beech 18 was probably one of my favorite aircraft. As we stepped outside the whoosh of jet engines and whine of turboprops shattered the morning silence as the airport began to shake off the inactivity of night for another day of work. Service vehicles darted around the parked aircraft preparing them for another day in the sky. As we hauled our baggage out of the shuttle van our Beechcraft, N18MC, sat silently in the early morning fog. Its nose pointed majestically skyward, as if she were pointing to where she wanted to go. Every time I see a Beechcraft D18 I think of that old 1950's television classic "Sky King", even though the aircraft in that series was a Cessna Bobcat. The similarities are enough from a distance to invoke such reflections. I also think about the thousands of military personnel who had trained in this type aircraft. I grew up in a Marine Corp aviation family. During the 1950's I lived on Cherry Point Marine Corp Air Station in North Carolina and I still recall, vividly, the old C45 Expeditor SNB's sitting out on the flightline, glistening in the coastal sun. Their Marine pilots fondly referred to them as "Bug Smashers."


On January 15, 1937, the Beechcraft Model 18 made its first demonstration flight at the factory in Wichita, Kansas, and it continued in production for thirty-two years. This low-wing, all-metal, twin-engine monoplane was originally intended as a six-to-eight-passenger executive or feeder airline transport. As the years passed, however, the Model 18 was adapted to many uses and, in all; thirty-two different versions were produced.


When production began there was virtually no market for the airplane in the United States. In January, 1939, Beech began negotiations with the U.S. government on a contract for a photo reconnaissance version of the 18. World War II brought more orders for military versions of the Beech 18S from the United States and foreign governments for a wide range of uses. Almost 90% of the USAF navigators and bombardiers received their training on AT-7s and AT-11s respectively. The U.S. Navy SNB-1 was similar to the AT-11, the SNB-2 to the AT-7.


With the end of the war came the end of military production, although many of these aircraft remained in service for years. By October 1945 Beech was back into full commercial aircraft production. The first aircraft off the line was the newest model, the D18S, which incorporated a number of improvements. Structural modifications allowed for an increase in maximum weight and new landing gear, brakes, and tires were installed. Two 450-hp Pratt & Whitney Wasp, Jr., engines with Hamilton Standard constant speed propellers powered the D18S. It was the premier executive transport among businessmen and it was also used by the new local service airlines that emerged after the end of World War II.


Postwar, large numbers of C45s entered civil service, while Beech resumed production of the C18S. Progressive development resulted in the D18S of 1946, the Continental powered D18C of 1947, the E18S of 1954, the G18S. On December 10, 1953, the prototype of the Super 18, the last version of the Beech 18, made its first flight. The last three production aircraft were delivered in November 1969. More than 9,000 Model 18s were produced and in 1970 more than 2,000 were still being flown in the United States alone.


I entered the cockpit and checked throttles and electrical switches before starting my exterior preflight. Byron stowed our gear in the cabin and after my walk-around I talked to the line supervisor, signed the fuel voucher then climbed aboard. That trudge "uphill" to the cockpit is always a thrill and announces that you're in a tail dragger. I slipped into my seat and went thru my standard brief for anyone that would be occupying the right seat, emphasizing items like emergency egress, what switches and levers not to touch, use of the headset and a few other items. I slipped on my headset. I then pulled the sectional chart out of my NAV bag and clipped it to the map holder on the left side of my panel. Next I got my laminated aircraft checklist and started the mantra that hundred's of thousands of pilot's had gone through prior to this flight and would go through after. "Parking Brake - Set. Landing Gear - Lever Down. Battery Switches -- ON. Master Radio Switch -- Off. Navigation Lights -- Set". and on and on. Soon the aircraft was ready for engine start and I called out through the open side window and alerted the line attendant. He glanced around the aircraft one last time to ensure we were clear of personnel and equipment. With his hand resting on a portable fire extinguisher he indicated I was cleared to start engines. I energized the beacon, moved the mixture lever full forward, cracked the right throttle, set the prop control, turned on the right Fuel Boost , set magnetos to Both, checked the Master Battery Switch, flipped the Start Selector to the Right Engine position and then gave the engine a couple shots of primer. I then held the starter switch on and a low whine could be heard from the right engine. Then she roared to life, belching a huge plume of salt & pepper colored smoke out of her exhaust stack. A careful check of the engine instruments was made to ensure that pressures and temperatures were within limits and then the generators were placed on the line. This ritual was then repeated for the left engine and before long we sat in a very noisy cockpit with both engines roaring majestically only a few feet outside. I elected to perform the engine run-up on the spot and in a few minutes was assured we had two fully functioning engines. I called ground control to taxi.


The Pratt & Whitney R-985 Wasp Junior was an engine widely used in American aircraft starting in the 1930s. It was a scaled-down version of the original R-1340, and the second in the Wasp family. It was a single-row, 9-cylinder air-cooled radial design. The R985 featured a built-in centrifugal supercharger and direct-drive propeller. Displacement was 985 cubic inches (16.1 liters); bore and stroke were 5.2". It was used on numerous light aircraft and has a good reputation for being dependable. Most versions produced 450 hp.


Malpensa was using Runway 35L this morning for departures. After a 10 minute taxi down the west side of the field, passing in front the main terminal, we joined the early morning line of aircraft awaiting departure. When we were number two in line I set the cowl flaps for takeoff, adjusted trim, made sure the fuel boost pumps were on, rechecked the pitot heat switch and radio settings and glanced at the fuel tank selector handle. We were ready to go. I placed my checklist in its normal resting spot in the forward, left side of the instrument panel and just as I did in our headsets we heard, "Mercator '18 Mike Charlie ' cleared for Takeoff Runway 35 Left." A quick check to the right and left assured me we were clear of traffic. I then pulled out on the runway and switched on the landing light, locked the tailwheel and rechecked the flap position. "OK, Byron here we go" and I shimmied up the throttle levers to their take-off position. The engines roared to a high growl, internal vibrations increased significantly and we started to accelerate down the runway. Soon the Beech had her tailwheel off the deck and we could once again see ahead without craning our necks. At 105 KIAS I put light backpressure on the yoke and we were airborne. After establishing a positive rate of climb I raised the gear and as we passed through 300 feet AGL I adjusted the prop and throttle levers to give us 32" of Manifold Pressure (MP) and 2,200 RPM. At 500 feet AGL the flaps were retracted, the mixture leaned out, boost pumps secured, and the landing lights switched off. Malpensa Tower cleared us for a right turn, so after a careful check for traffic I banked gently to right to take up our outbound track to Verona, our first port-of-call.


Italy is a country that has an exulted place in the history of human civilization. The Italians have made immeasurable contributions to the development of European philosophy, science, and art during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It has produced such remarkable personages as Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Brunelleschi, Machiavelli, Christopher Columbus, Marco Polo, Galileo, Raphael, Garibaldi; a plethora of Caesars and scores more. And the mere mention of such places as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Vatican, the Coliseum, the canals of Venice, the Apian Way, Mt. Vesuvius or merely the word Rome, produces almost instantaneous recognition of a country so diverse it's hard to describe.


Italy is a classic peninsula, a geographical landform consisting of an extension of a body of land from a larger body of land, surrounded by water on three sides. Italy is flanked on the northwest by the Ligurian Sea, to the west and southwest by the Tyrrhenian Sea and to the South by the Mediterranean. To the southeast lies the Ionian Sea and to the east is the Adriatic. Roughly measured, Italy is approximately 650 nm long and averages around 55 nm wide.


Flight Advisory: AOPA Italy would like to draw to the attention of all European pilots a peculiarity of Italian airspace, which might so far have escaped the attention of visitors. The ubiquitous definition of the so-called "semicircular" flight rule for VFR flights in fact does not apply to Italy, where it has been modified as follows:


All VFR flights above 3,000 ft, or above 1,000 ft AGL, whichever is greatest, must fly at the following flight levels:


For headings between 090 and 269 : odd tens plus 5 (i.e. FL 35, 55, 75, etc.)
For headings between 270° and 089°: even tens plus 5 (i.e. FL 45, 65, 85, etc.)


This differs from the universal practice of splitting the levels in a north-south line used in other European countries and is a source of potential problems. Italian geography is such that the great majority of flights are in NW and SE directions -- ATC cites the country's shape as the reason for the semicircular anomaly -- and in these quadrants there is no difference in the Italian and international requirements.


AOPA Italy's Massimo Levi says: "How many French, German or British pilots are aware of this difference? We believe not many, which explains our concern. The situation poses difficulties not only for foreign pilots in Italy, but for Italian pilots leaving the country, who must be aware that the rest of the world does things differently."


Its most prominent feature is its boot-like shape kicking the island of Sicily. Much of Italy is covered by mountains with the Dolomite's and Alps extending across northern Italy. The Apennine Mountains cut down the center of the country, stretching from north to south, and separate the east and west coasts. The geology of the Apennine's is very interesting in that the mountains actually dive under the sea at the southwestern edge of Sicily and re-emerged in North Africa on the Tunisian coast east of Tunis, where they eventual make up the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. Italy also includes two large islands: Sicily and Sardinia. Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean, with active volcanoes and earthquakes. Sardinia is basically mountains rising out of the ocean. Italy is comprised of twenty regions which primarily serve to decentralize the state government. Within the borders of Italy lie two independent countries: Vatican City, the center for the Roman Catholic Church, which is the world's smallest country and San Marino, on the north east coast of Italy, which is an independent republic.


Verona (LIPX/VRN), our first stop, was a mere 90 nm to the east of Milan. After reaching our cruise altitude (almost all segments of this trip were flown below 12,000' AGL) I reset the power to give us 30" MP & 2,000 RPM. After I centered the heading bug on the Directional Gyro (DG), I switched on the Lear L2 Autopilot and tweaked the pitch knob. (The L2 autopilot is pretty basic and there is no altitude hold or capture and naturally nothing to help maintain speed. It sports 4 knobs: 2 small ones on the left side and bottom to trim elevator and ailerons, a large knob in the center for turns and another smaller knob on the right to adjust pitch). I then slewed the yellow heading bug to our computed outbound heading. The old Beech wagged her wings as if to indicate she understood the command and would comply.


As we passed south of the city of Brescia the early morning fog disappeared, as Mauro predicted. We flew on in relatively clear skies. An hour later we were sitting on the ramp at Verona. Verona is a provincial capital and is located in the Veneto region of northern Italy. The ancient town and the center of the modern city of Verona are in a loop of the Adige River near Lake Garda, the largest lake in Italy, and is home to approximately 260,000 people. Several local Alitalia officials greeted us; anxious to extend their hospitality to us since we had contracted with them for ground service support for our newly negotiated Italian routes. There was a lot of back slapping and handshaking and I counted more than a few espressos's knocked down as we talked aviation -- what else -- with our new found friends!






Soon we were back aboard and the engines went through their customary sequence of startup sounds: rattle-rattle, click-click, bang-bang -- then a few more clicks, then a lot of smoke as they roared to life. This leg would carry us northward, out over Lago di Garda (Lake Garda). Then I intended to track northeastward up the 28 nm long lake and climb deep into the Dolomite Mountains to the city of Bolzano. The northern part of the lake is narrower, surrounded by the mountains. The shape is that typical of a moraine valley, probably having been formed by a glacier. In one spot this lake is over 1,100 ft. deep. After a northwest departure we passed the southern shore of the lake. As I banked to the right Byron exclaimed "Man, this thing is huge,". I initially climbed to 4,500' to afford us a good view of the lake and the view was spectacular with the deep cobalt blue of the water complemented by the green mountain slopes that rushed down to the lakes shorelines on both sides of the aircraft. Soon however the lake was behind us and I started letting down for Bolzano (LIPB/BZO). We were cleared straight in. Soon we were emerging from the aircraft to be greeted by cool mountain air, a brilliant sun and a view that was absolutely breathtaking. Bolzano is a city in the Trentino-South Tyrol region of Italy and is the capital of the Autonomous Province of Bolzano. Of the 100,000 inhabitants 73% of the city speaks Italian, 23% speak German and 1% speaks Ladin (a Rhaeto-Romance language spoken in the Dolomite Mountains).






Next on the itinerary was Trieste where we would have lunch. We departed Bolzano and I had to corkscrew upward over the town to reach a comfortable altitude to clear the surrounding ridges that dotted our trackline eastward to Trieste. We kept Austria off our port wingtip and soon sat on the ramp at Trieste (LIPQ/TRS). We were graciously invited to lunch by an airport executive. In a matter of minutes after landing we were in the cool shade of an open veranda at a nearby caf savoring the local fare and talking with our host about -- what else -- airplanes. Lunch is the big meal in Italy, and typically consists of a starter (antipasto), a first course (pasta, risotto or soup), a second course of a meat, chicken or fish, cheese and dessert (dolce), all topped off with coffee. Soon though, with appetites totally sated, we were airborne once again and after stops in Asiago (LIDA/---) and then Bergamo (LIME/BGY) we turned the little Beechcraft southward and headed to Genoa.






After a flight of 36 minutes we blocked in on the Genoa (LIMJ/GOA) ramp, right on the edge of the Gulf of Genoa. Byron and I stretched our legs a bit and walked around the terminal area. Several ramp workers greeted us and asked questions about our aircraft, which I was more than happy to answer. Genoa is the capital of the Province of Genoa in the region of Liguria and was the home of such important personages as navigators Christopher Columbus and Andrea Doria and the composer Niccola Paganini. As I stood there on the ramp and glanced south at the port area I wondered what it had looked like in Columbus's day? Today large gantry cranes were working feverously to load and unload container ships that were moored there. The air was heavy with the smell of kerosene; that sweet, pungent, warm airport fragrance. Soon it was time to kick the tires and light the fires for our next leg, which would carry us down to Pisa. Before long we were at altitude and cruising down the Riviera Di Levante which runs from Genoa to La Spezia. Just off La Spezia I angled in towards the beach and we started to set up for our afternoon approach into Pisa (LIRP/PSA). We got a short right base entry to runway 22L and soon we were turning onto final. Byron remarked that he could see the Leaning Tower of Pisa in the failing afternoon light but I was too busy getting the aircraft configured for landing to do much sightseeing. After landing, I turned off the active, taxied in and shut down.


Leg eight, the last for the day, would take us to Rome's Fiumicino airport (LIRF/FCO). We left Pisa with the sun just below the horizon and it got dark fairly rapidly. As we got nearer to Rome the visibility started to drop. I had been briefed earlier in the day that our departure from Rome on day 2 for Sardinia would probably be a foggy one. Oh well, that was something to contemplate tomorrow. After a 1.3 hour transit down the western side of Italy, Fiumicino Tower cleared us for a straight in to runway 16C. I kept our speed up at ATC's request due to the long line of heavy breathers queued up behind us to land also. And after landing I exited as quickly as I could. Several minutes later we had taxied to our spot behind the Alitalia Cargo Terminal. I shut down 18 Mike Charlie and secured her for the night. Day One had us visit eight airports; we had flown 722 nm and logged 6.9 hrs. It had been a fun day but we were both tired and ready to relax.



Rome -- Olbia (Sardinia) -- Cagliari (Sardinia) -- Palermo (Sicily) -- Catania (Sicily) -- Lamezia -- Brindisi - Bari


The early morning weather was foggy and ragged like the night before. Visibility was less than 4 miles and the sun was straining mightily to burn off the offending fog cover but it looked doubtful by departure time. After a good nights sleep Byron and I met in the cafe for our customary cups of cappuccino and a couple anise flavored biscotti di prato's [MSOffice2] dunked in our cappuccino to soften not only the hard Italian cookie but also our hunger pangs until lunch. Neither of us were big breakfast eaters.






At 0700 there was still minimal traffic at Fiumicino and we were off with no major delays. We departed straight out from runway 25 and at 4,000 ft I finally broke through the fog. Patches of blue sky were appearing so I suspected it would be clear soon. Since this leg was over a lot of water (130 nm) I climbed to a respectable altitude in case we needed the extra cushion for safety. I set cruise settings and leaned the mixture a bit more then secured the cowl flaps. The twin R-935 Baby Wasps were in a synchronous drone. With little to look at below Byron took the opportunity to ask some questions about the old aircraft that was transporting us around Italy. He wanted to know what the two, big red "eyeball looking things" were up on the dash. "Emergency Prop Feather switches." He asked about the missing gauge in the instrument panel down by my right knee. "The radar altimeter use to be located there but the Avionics shop remounted it on top of the panel for easier viewing." He was confused by all the levers that seemed to sprout from the center pedestal. ""P" is for propellers, "T" is throttle, "M" is mixture, "MH" is manifold heat and "OS" is for the Oil Shutters." He also wanted to know why Mercator still flew such and old aircraft? "Its fun and the pilots -- some of them anyway -- love these aircraft. And in smaller bush areas it's a great choice and a real PR (Public Relations) asset for the company." "But isn't this aircraft more work to fly with all the levers you seem to have to manipulate constantly?" I told him that many aviators thought an old aircraft like this Beech 18 epitomized all that was good in aviation. I pointed out that airline pilots, after flying a wide-bodied jet for a living, often flew old recip aircraft to relax and have fun. An old aviator once lamented, "If it isn't oily, noisy, or a challenge to fly what good is it?" Then Byron fell silent for a while and just enjoyed the tranquility of riding above the earth in such a splendid aircraft. Fifty miles from Sardinia the horizon, directly ahead of us, began to take on an uneven appearance. After a short downwind to the east followed by an abbreviated base and final leg we were sitting on the ramp at Olbia, Sardinia (LIEO/OLB) on the northeastern corner of the island. From here we flew down the spine of the island to the southern city of Cagliari (LIEE/CAG).






Leg 3 took us out over the Gulf of Cagliari, then out over the Mediterranean Sea to the island of Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean which has five million inhabitants. After a 1.5 hrs flight leg, the longest single leg we would fly in our 3 day junket, we landed in Palermo (LICJ/PMO). The official name of the airport is 'Punta Raisi' but the locals refer to it as the "Falcone- Borsellino" Airport in honor of two well know Sicilian magistrates who were assassinated by the Costra Nostra (Mafia) in Palermo in 1992. The sky was streaked with high, wispy white clouds, a soft breeze was blowing and the warm sun felt invigorating. Two airport employees befriended us -- Gian and Salvatore-- and offered to show us a good place to eat near the airport. In minutes we were all seated on the stone veranda of the Ristorante La Tartaruga, less than a half mile from the approach end of runway 02, enjoying a magnificent view of the Gulf of Castellanmare. So while we enjoy our lunch this would be a good time to take a break from our adventure. See you back at the plane in Part 2 when we return to the skies to complete our travels of Italy.


"Arrivederci il mio amico." -- Good-bye my friend.


Credits And Reference Links

Once again, without the unselfish and tireless efforts of many aircraft and scenery developers this trip would not have been as dynamic and as realistic as it was. To all those very talented people listed below and to the thousands of others that daily contribute their efforts to sites such as FlightSim.Com and Avsim.com for our enjoyment I can only say is - Thank You!



Beechcraft D18S by Milton Shupe, Scott Thomas & Andre Folker, is available at various sim sites. At FlightSim.Com see files: D18SVC2.ZIP for the FS2002 version or D18SVC4.ZIP for the FS2004 version.


Also highly recommended is Milton Shupe's website for additional files or suggestions regarding this aircraft at FlightSimOnline @ http://www.flightsimonline.com/


Mercator livery design, aircraft repaint, and panel modifications by the author.



See http://walhalla.mine.nu/fs2004.php and http://walhalla.mine.nu/fs2002.php for airport scenery links for all the airports in this story; or just search the FlightSim.Com file library.



70m Global Terrain Mesh - converted & compiled by Stephen Rothlisberger










Too numerous to list - consult your local travel agent!



If you enjoyed the article or have comments please let me hear from you. I always look forward to your feedback.


Joe Thompson

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