A Brief History Of Dispersals Over Iowadaho’s Wilderness

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After abandoning the Santa Clara Valley for a new life on a small airport in rural Iowa, you’ll notice that your California flying buddies at Reid Hillview Airport (RHV) never visit, partly because they know if they leave their hangars unoccupied the county will raze them in its campaign to eliminate General Aviation. Additionally, everyone thinks you’ve moved to Idaho. The two states are frequently confused, given the similar spelling and unease many feel when asked to identify either on a map. Let’s compare and contrast.

Iowa is the squarish one sitting like a rumpled bathmat between two rivers of cultural significance. No, not the Passaic and Raritan but the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Above Iowa is Minnesota, and below is the less phlegmatic Kansas.

Made you Google. It’s actually Missouri. I think….

Idaho by contrast, is the foam finger west of Montana pointing at Canada as though warning, “keep those landing fees on your side.” Being Canadians, they politely comply. And export more comedians.

No one knows what the names Idaho or Iowa mean, but both states have rich aviation histories, and recently I was pleased to find a book by Chista Videriksen Worthy about Iowa’s bush and mountain pilots whose exploits extend back to the 1910s when simply boarding an aeroplane displayed moxie. I was fascinated with stories on wilderness flying and forest fire suppression, when I realized Iowa has no wilderness and little in the way of forests, so there are few rugged airstrips inside canyons, where hunters land Cessna 185s, loaded with guns, ammo, and bourbon and fly out with empty rifles and bottles, plus gutted caribou lashed to both struts to maintain lateral stability.

Chagrinned, I realized I was reading Worthy’s “Idaho Aviation,” and not “Iowa Takes to the Air,” by Ann Holtrgen Pellegreno, a pilot and writer who’s done more cool flying than I’ll ever attempt. For example, in 1967 Ann, flying a twin-engine Lockheed 10A Electra, retraced the round-the-world flight that Amelia Earhart had nearly completed 30 years earlier in a Lockheed 10E. Not to brag, but I’ve successfully flown my Aeronca Champ to New Jersey and back, following I-80 but landed no book deals.

With Idaho established as not Iowa, I continued reading and learned about the stuff Idaho pilots have tossed from aircraft since the 1920s. Fertilizer, DDT, fire retardant, mail, even fish and beavers have been hauled aloft and deposited in woodlands and rivers. To coax elk toward high country from lower elevations where they’d been wintering, pilots dropped salt from airplanes. I assume on each bag was stenciled: Free Beer Up This Hill. Nice work if you can get it and, especially, if you survive, which some pilots didn’t.

Sobering, but there’s risk in all flight, perhaps more so when running low through Idaho’s Hells Canyon. The name invokes Milton Caniff misadventure and reminds me of when I was retained to scatter the ashes of Dwayne, a former student, over an outdoor memorial service, although not over the family itself. This was decades before Covid so no masks. On the appointed evening, the family delivered their powdered loved one to my hangar. I’d never scattered ashes before, but inexperience rarely impedes poor judgment.

I’d expected an urn or even a Lebowski coffee can from Ralphs grocery store. Instead, I received a cardboard box, containing a plastic bag with a wire cinching the neck closed. I strapped the box to the Champ’s rear seat, and as the mourners departed for the ceremonial field of grief, I hand-propped the engine, untied the tail, unchocked the wheels and climbed into the front seat. Passenger briefing complete, I departed. All went well, as disasters tend to, before reality hit the fan.

Time on target was pre-sunset. Family members gathered on a west-facing knoll at a farm south of Des Moines—Iowa, not Idaho. Arriving from the east at 500 feet AGL, I opened the bomb bay by sliding the left window back. With power reduced, I clasped the joystick between my knees to hold altitude while reaching for the container. Doing so, I lost fifty feet so increased power to climb and adjusted trim while keeping my target in sight at 11 o’clock. The NTSB report was writing itself.

The plastic bag, holding Dwayne’s last, was reluctant to leave the box. Tugging and aviating, I finally pulled him free, untwisted the wire and hoisted him onto the windowsill. The plan was to hold the bag’s neck, trailing into the slip stream while flying with knees and feet on stick and rudders. As the assembled gazed skyward, I slowly release the powdered Dwayne into the slipstream, and it sounded like this:

“GAH-Blamidall! Flubbidin’ Sababo Bichos! Hack! Cough, Sneeze….!”

Seems when you open a bag of grit near an airplane’s window, much of its contents flash back into the cabin to dowse the pilot/bombardier in bits of Dwayne who now had the unearthly consistency of drywall dust. The ceremony was modified as I wiped dead guy from my eyes, nose, and mouth. Panicking, I released the nearly full bag so as not to crash.

From the ground, the assembled watched the yellow airplane of which Dwayne had spoken so fondly. A spritz of gray plume etched the rosy sky as Mozart’s Requiem in D Minus for Cello and Didgeridoo, played on a cassette recorder, accompanied by distant swearing from above and the appearance of a ghostly orb. Like a comet emitting a dusty tail, it plummeted earthward to explode in a spectacularly percussive thud of the dearly departed. Wish I could’ve shared that solemn moment with the family, but mission accomplished, I returned to base.

At the wash rack I sprayed water onto the gray ash that didn’t readily flush away but congealed into soggy mortar. I bade farewell to semi-liquid Dwayne, the last pilot I’d ever intentionally toss from an airplane. And later that week when FSDO called, asking if I knew anything about the incident, I feigned ignorance, saying I’d been in Idaho that day.

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38 COMMENTS

  1. I’ve known several pilots who have attempted to disperse a friend’s ashes from an airplane using a number of different jury rigged apparatus. All have failed to different levels and have spent some time cleaning the cremains out of the plane’s interior. To my knowledge, none have successfully spread the entire cargo as intended. Maybe some enterprising engineer needs to design an ash dispersal device that he/she can get STC’d for various light planes. Shouldn’t be too hard. 😉

  2. Now I had to start over several times, because I was laughing so hard that my eyes welled up and I forgot how far I’d gotten. Almost choked at “Mozart’s Requiem in D Minus for Cello and Didgeridoo” even sans ashes. Had a similar experience myself a l’epoche including vacuum cleaning after removal of the floorboards …

    • Right.

      And soybean, often rotated with corn to put nitrogen back in soil.

      The average person may not know where either state is – a couple of decades ago half of high school students in Minneapolis and Winterpeg did not know where the other city is.

  3. ‘Like a comet emitting a dusty tail, it plummeted earthward to explode in a spectacularly percussive thud of the dearly departed.’

    From the weightless freedom in the cosmos, to a jarring arrival on earth, death once again imitates birth.

    What a hilarious, fun read, and makes my decision for me to never attempt such a ceremony from an aircraft…or a car, or a boat…eww

  4. Thanks for the shout out Paul, I grew up in and on the banks of the Raritan River. We also threw all kinds of stuff into the river, rarely the remains of a fallen friend though.
    Someday I hope to visit iowadaho. Hopefully it will be as grand as a childhood in Raritan Borough, Nj.

  5. Remind me to look at potatoes from Idaho with a more critical eye……

    Best method I found for scattering – Measure a stout piece of sisal (biodegradable) string from cockpit window to just aft of the rudder. But not so stout that the rudder and elevator can’t overcome it. Tape the string firmly to the side of a thin brown paper bag. Really sticky tape. Cremains in bag and fold top over and tape shut. Tie other end of string inside the cockpit somewhere firm. Fly to intended DZ.

    Slowish Flight. Open window. Drop bag out window – it heads down and aft and as long as the brown paper is really thin – the string rips the bag open aft of the aircraft. No mess, no muss.

  6. Mountains in Iowa?, I don’t remember any.

    I did see signs saying ‘Nebraski’ driving I-80 across Nebraska, which is flat flat flat.

    Then a huge lump of rock rose up from the farmland – a ski school on its perhaps 200 feet of elevation. So you don’t have to fly to Colorado just to stumble around learning. (Though it may be a drive from populus places, can’t think of one in Nebraska offhand – oh, Lincoln and Omaha at east side, Des Moines IA should be near there. (Oh! There was a Nebraski between Lincoln and Omaha at Trail Ridge near Gretna, probably not the big rock.)

    Idaho is nice, but watch for drunks when you drive to a campground southeasterly of Pond d’Oreille – there’s a settlement called Hope, then a suburb East Hope, then a boozing place called Beyond Hope.

  7. I didn’t have to Google the geography–I live next door to MO in IL–but I did have to look up phlegmatic, which means “(of a person) having an unemotional and stolidly calm disposition.” As usual, Paul offers a little edumication along with entertainment. Well done!

  8. Paul, if you’re going to write about Iowa, you need to somehow also work in the State Fair. After all, we’re talking ’bout one of the best State Fairs in the country, if not the best. Think of the material – swine barn, big boar, corn dogs, the midway, awesome tractor pulls, deep fried twinkies, etc. – it doesn’t get any better than that. Iowa is probably the only state in the union where the summer is so amazingly hot and humid you can actually hear the corn growing and you ask yourself, “Is this Hell?”. And the answer of course is, “No, it’s Iowa”.

  9. Don’t forget music – Oldies notably two decades ago.

    For westerners, the Puyallup may be worthwhile as it has such, perhaps less of a farm fair than many – try eastern WA for those, I presume.

    (Amusing story of Darwin Candidates – frequent reports of people trying to steal ammonia from tanks left in the fields of Iowa, sometimes poisoning themselves in the process of showing their ignorance and incompetence. Ammonia is injected in soil to replenish nitrogen that corn depletes, transported in small wheeled tanks. Apparently ammonia can be used to make some kind of intoxicant, sold in bigger markets like Chicago. Cheaper than buying packages of antihistamines or whatever else works.

  10. When we picked up my father’s ashes, the funeral director gave us some tips on dispersal. Being on the coast he said scattering at sea was popular, but to make sure we actually scatter the ashes and not just drop the box overboard. The box is much as Paul described – a plastic bag full of cremains, tied shut, and fitted into a plain plastic box. Roughly the size of a (American) football if footballs were box-shaped.

    Why? I asked. Was there some ethical or moral reason?

    No, he said, it’s just that some people get out on the water, and the wind is blowing, and they’re worried that ashes will scatter and swirl onto the boat itself. The box feels pretty heavy, so they figure a ‘burial at sea’, box and all, is just as fitting and sufficient. And the box goes Kerplunk! and slowly sinks from sight in a somewhat majestic way.

    But, as he further explained, the box is not really that heavy. It’s almost neutrally buoyant. It will settle on the sea floor, but tides and currents will often tumble and move the box. It may take weeks, or months, sometimes years, but the box eventually washes ashore. At that point whoever finds it often turns it over to the police.

    You see, he explained further, each set of cremains has a metal coin, about the size of a quarter, with an ID number stamped on it. This coin is placed on the body before it’s cremated to make sure the ashes can be identified.

    So when the police get the box, they open it up, find the coin, and follow the number back to the funeral home. And the director says, “we then have the unfortunate task of calling the next of kin and saying, ‘your uncle just showed up.'”

    So, he concluded, make sure you really scatter the ashes… but not the coin.

  11. A Navion makes ash dispersal easy. Crack the canopy and you have instant access to a low pressure field that wants to hoover up everything loose in the cockpit. I once disposed of a small snake that had taken up residence behind the rudder pedals this way.
    That said, getting those abrasive ashes out was quick and easy. Repainting the leading edge of the horizontal stabilizer, not so much.

  12. My friend who lived on a hill overlooking Morro Bay, CA said “When I croak off, please distribute my ashes over the bay.”
    This did take place . I flew his Bonanza over the bay & his wife sitting in the back right side, opened the window.
    Well, upon dispersing the ashes, they blew back in to fill the cabin.
    I said to myself – sorry John, we tried!

  13. Back in the 1980s a friend had a side business called “Arial Burials”, and since he didn’t own an aircraft, he worked up a dispersal tube that could be strapped to a wing strut which consisted of a 3 inch piece of PVC pipe with a door and cabinet latch on the back and a 3×1 1/2 inch reducer on the front. You ran a string from the latch into the window on the pilot’s side. You’d make sure the latch was closed, remove the friction fit reducer on the front and pour the cremains into the tube, replace the reducer and put a piece of tape over the opening. When at the airport you’d mount the tube on the strut and make sure to remove the tape and run the string into the window. When over the drop zone you’d just pull the string and the wind would push the cremains out the back in a grey fog. The local FISDO tried to tell him that he needed a 135 operation to do it but, being a lawyer, he countered that it was closer to crop dusting and that cremains were not legally people or cargo. He offered to call them when he was doing a drop and they could violate him. They never took him up on that.

  14. I love the writing of both “Pauls”–one with ascerbic wit, and the other able to conjure up even the most improbable issues (and conduct a PLAUSIBLE scenario!).

    Yes, stories abound about these aerial faux pax–and MOST of them are true–like this experience! HOWEVER–Paul has taken some “artistic license” with Iowa facts–the first being his imagined conflation of Iowa with Idaho. Those of us who are long-time readers have read his narratives going all the way back to when he was an air traffic controller–IN IOWA! (so much for not knowing the difference with that “other I-state!”) His writing is hilarious, though–I always have a smile on my face when reading his work.

    A related personal anecdote–I spread my father’s ashes from our shared Cessna 120–at his request. On a fishing trip to Canada, he was engaged with another passenger in the King Air I fly–and the subject was “what would you do if you died in Canada?–what would you do with the body?” My Dad replied–“I’d be cremated, and HE (pointing at me) is going to do it–dropping me from our Cessna 120 over our small town (Clarks Grove, MN.–where he was the Mayor)–where the housewives will curse me every time they have to dust!” He died suddenly two weeks later–and I did as he had requested.

    I did the “plastic tube with tape” trick, and carried out his wishes. I did it without a passenger, and actually smiled as I recalled his request from two weeks earlier. (Of course, I never told the housewives of the town!)

  15. Are you sure you were in Idaho for this fun fiasco when the FDSO called you and not in Ohio? Iowa, Idaho and Ohio are the 3 that always mix me up.

    Driving to what was supposed to be funeral in Ohio from Phoenix in 1979 only to end up going to Idaho was embarrassing enough for me but since I was 30 years younger the road trip in itself was still fun but I won’t go any further with that fiasco.

  16. Paul, in his narrative, says “No one knows what the names Idaho or Iowa mean”. As someone that has spent so much time in Iowa, he would know that term is of the Sioux Indian language, meaning “SLEEPY PEOPLE.” (not kidding, look it up). Living only 12 miles from the Iowa Border, we in Minnesota have a lot of good-natured Iowa jokes about that!–laugh).

    Perhaps it can be blamed on his Alter Ego–“A second self or different version of oneself”–“It was the OTHER Paul!”

  17. The first time I did this when a kid with my Uncle he had a simple system. He had a pillow case with a cord sown into the bottom seam that was to be tied to the inside seat handle. On the ground, we had emptied the vict.. ehem, deceased out of the urn into the pillow case and tied the end of another cord around the open end of the pillow case closing it with a half hitch knot. When we had gotten close to the drop zone I would put the pillow case out of the window hanging onto both small cords. At the drop zone you pull on the cord tied to the top and when it opens the slip stream pops open the open end of the pillow case ballooning it open and then it trails open inside-out trailing from the sown in cord. No muss in the plane because it is three feet or so behind the window and the wind cleans absolutely every ash particle away and you can’t lose it pulling it back into the plane. Super easy enough that I was doing it by alone without a single mess.

  18. I have scattered at least a dozen bags of cremains with never a problem. My latest involves a modified baggage door on my Bonanza. It was ruled a minor mod by the local FSDO and makes scattering easy safe and clean.

  19. Being from Iowa, that was always a joke, and we were generally somewhat contemptuous of those geographically challenged coastal “Citiots” who would always confuse Iowa, Idaho, and Ohio. And didn’t even know enough to use Oxford commas.

    I once had a T-shirt that read: first line “University of Iowa”, second line “Ohio City, Idaho”. I thought it was hilarious, but sometimes I’d see the blank stare in someone’s eyes that denote the gears if non-comprehension turning somewhere in the dark recesses behind. Generally, that was someone who lived within spittin’ distance of an ocean. Of course, I don’t have that problem anymore, because I live in Ohio.

    Oh, wait…

  20. When I moved to Idaho, even my own sister said, “Isn’t that where they grow all the corn?” But if you’ve ever FLOWN in Idaho, you’d never mistake the two! Idaho’s backcountry airstrips are a Mecca for pilots world-wide. If you enjoyed this post and want more amazing stories, order this fast-reading book (hey, Paul read it) with 277 photos, and see how Idaho pilots transported horses, cows, even pianos, in tiny airplanes, how Idaho built airports all around the state with their “Airport in a Day” programs, how the first ag planes came from this area, and much more…Idaho is pilot Valhalla! http://www.IdahoAviation.com/product/idaho-aviation-book-images-of-aviation/

  21. I, too escaped what used to be California back in 1982 and left Reid-Hillview behind.
    It’s amazing the county has not figured out a way to bulldoze the whole field to protect some kind of squirrel.
    I may visit my old buddies in Idahowa, but I’ll never go back to San Jose without a police escort…