At the risk of extending the maudlin and the macabre into a fresh work week, Paul Berge’s blog on the passing of two friends reminds me how many of us have been asked to spread ashes from airplanes. Although it’s probably lost to the trivial details of history, I wonder if Orville or Wilbur or Glenn Curtiss might have been handed an urn by a grieving relative and asked to commit the departed to the winds of eternity.
The idea has an irresistible appeal. As an alternative to putting dead people in holes, we’ve been torching them instead since the dawn of recorded history. The dust-to-dust dogma being a durable belief, spreading the ashes closes that last few arcseconds of the circle of life. People scatter from bridges, from mountain tops, into gardens, forests, oceans, lakes and rivers and into space. And from airplanes.
Solemnity isn’t a euphemism for disaster, but when dealing with human ashes, it might as well be. Just trying to distribute the remains with dignity on the ground or at sea is challenging enough, but if you want to make a real (h)ash of it, do it unprepared from an airplane. I know this because I’m remembering an indelible quote from an instructor friend of mine.
“You know those knurled knobs on the KX-170s in Seven Five Bravo? Well, Uncle Harry is gonna be in them for a long, long time,” my friend told me. Anyone who has blundered through an ash scatter gone wrong will know exactly what that means. I’m glossing the details here, but the departed Uncle Harry was a sailor and his relatives came to the flight school one day to ask if his ashes could be scattered over Long Island Sound. Sure thing, someone said. (I wasn’t involved, but would have made the same mistake.)
Just climb to 1500 feet, open the window on the 172’s pax side, and upend the urn. If you understand the principle of carburation, you’ll immediately realize that more of Uncle Harry would have made it into the Sound if the urn had simply been dumped inside the airplane. The relatives, who were blessedly sanguine about this, memorialized Harry by carrying bits of him around in their hair and clothes for a few days. I don’t know that we ever entirely got all of the ash out of that 172.
There is a better way. Maybe several better ways. I seem to recall we stopped doing ash scattering at the flight school after that, but I have done it successfully from a 172. It requires a vacuum cleaner hose duct taped to the side of the airplane terminating near where the fuselage tumbles home to the belly or at least behind the door line. You need a large funnel where the ashes are poured into the hose. It’s easy, reliable and clean. Just know that ashes are surprisingly abrasive and likely to sandblast the paint a little. There’s at least one company that provides scattering as a professional service.
When our beloved Labrador, Heigel, departed the mortal coil, I scattered his ashes from the open door of the Cub over the neighborhood from 500 feet. Remembering Uncle Harry’s unbecoming scattering, I devised a new method. A dog’s ashes are of smaller volume than those of a human and easily fit into a pint plastic container of the size nuts are sold in. I attached a nylon cord through a hole drilled in the bottom and tossed the jar out of the door. The cord snapped taut two feet under the airplane, dispensing the ashes all at once and allowing me to retrieve the jar. Sadly, I’ve lost the video I made of this.
I’ve mentioned before that ash dives are a frequent thing in skydiving. They’re just as challenging. I took part in one where the remains were just taped up in a heavy paper bag. It took some doing to open that up in free fall, but it worked. A better way was a Velcro-closed fabric bag sewn up by a rigger. Two skydivers could open it with a tug on handles provided and the ashes were released instantaneously.
This was done in the days before the ubiquitous GoPro so someone shot it with a high-quality, helmet-mounted SLR. This produced an astonishing image. At the moment of release, there emerged a perfectly symmetrical ovate puff with a sharp point aimed heavenward. Even if you’re not religious—and I’m not—the spiritual implications were unmistakable. And also a reason to understand why ash scattering persists.