Scattering the ashes of human remains from airplanes is hardly a novel idea. Although aviation people probably think of it more often than the typical man in the street, when the survivors hunt for a way to memorialize their loved ones, airplanes just naturally come to mind. When I was instructing regularly, our flight school was asked several times to perform this delicate service. What I remember of one attemptashes swirling back into the cockpit through open windows and six inches of the horizontal stab sandblasted clean of paintcaused me to politely decline further inquiries.
That's why I was interested in interviewing Marc Arnold who, as described in this podcast, has a small business offering ash scattering from a Stemme high-performance glider. The service is called Ascension Scattering and there's more information and a video on it here.
Arnold has added forethought to what most of us who have done ash scattering have probably done ad hoc. It just doesn't work to open up the window of a 152 or a 172 and toss the ashes out. He's developed a technique involving a rapid disbursement of ashes that have been purposefully reduced to a finer powder into a robust thermal, so the ashes ascend rather than simply dispersing. He can photograph the process so the survivors get the unique opportunity of seeing the last physical vestiges of their loved one headed skyward. Whether you're religious or not, the spiritual implications are powerful. It's easy to see the attraction for pilots and their families.
Like most competitive soaring machines, Arnold's Stemme S10-VT is equipped with internal datalogging equipment that can track position, altitude and other variables and if the family is interested, this data can be presented along with the video of the scattering. What I most like about Arnold's service is that it offers a professional and respectful way of dispersing ash, an attractive alternative to just letting the urn accumulate dust because the family can't quite decide what to do with the ashes or how.
The emotional effect of ash scattering can be surprisingly intense. It's different than a burial service. It's somehow more uplifting. We occasionally do scattering in skydiving, which involves two or three jumpers opening a Velcro-closed bag to release the remains. At 120 MPH, the release happens so fast that you can't see it well in freefall. Just a puff and it's gone. But I participated in one ash dive where a photographer with a fast motor drive caught the exact moment of release, capturing a pearly, flame-shaped translucent column pointed skyward. All of us who saw the photo knew the person being memorialized and were simply astonished by the emotional impact of an image that, in a way, froze our friend's entire life in a 1/500th second shutter click. I don't know about you, but that suits me better than a headstone. I suspect Marc Arnold's clients feel the same.