Old pilots never die – they can stick around for years

Our drop mission was weather-dependent. It required smooth conditions in a layer up to 1500 ft above ground, to stay below radar, with at least a minimum off-shore breeze of 10 knots. The drop had to be done half an hour before sunset in cloudless, though not necessarily clear, conditions. In fact, a little obscuring haze up-sun would help the stealth nature of the task.

We had to be back on the ground before total darkness. There was every reason to expect our conspiracy could be carried out under the noses of the authorities without our true intentions ever being detected.

It wouldn’t take much fuel. Twenty minutes to the target area, ten minutes on a straight run half a mile out over the lake at 1000 ft above the water, parallel to the shoreline and a 25 minute return flight would put us back just before official darkness. The lake was to the west of the airport and our only chance of being noticed doing anything unusual was the curiosity of drivers on the heavily traveled six lane highway which ran north-south along the lakeshore. We needed the setting sun behind us to blind any drivers who might take notice of anything odd taking place out over the lake.

Scattering ashes Cessna
Is that a contrail?

Circumstances afforded us only a three-day window of opportunity to carry out our proposed task. The May long weekend was the only time the aircraft, my partner-in-crime and I would be able to rendezvous for the mission. After that other arrangements would have to be made. There was no plan B.

For two frustrating days we waited for just the right conditions. Providentially at last the weather gods and perhaps even other gods smiled on us. A high pressure area settled in late on Saturday afternoon bringing with it a light southerly return flow of smog. The hot sun beating down mercilessly in calm conditions on Sunday, our last available day, had produced a textbook sea-breeze in the afternoon changing to a land-breeze just before the sun started to set. The perfect weather change seemed to add a special benediction to our mission.

The tired old Cessna 172 squatted on the ramp of the deserted airport as the end of the day approached looking a little lopsided from too many hard cross wind landings. I did the walk around while my crewman adjusted his mission-specific, self-designed equipment inside the crowded cabin. It had taken many days of discussion and research to plan the complicated array of plastic pipes and containers. We had studied the many failures of others. Death had been the reward of some pilots who had dared to tempt fate in such a well intentioned, sacred endeavor. These were my thoughts as I rotated the aircraft into a blazing red sun setting ever lower on the horizon as I took off on runway 28.

It had all started in January when my friend and flying partner had suddenly taken a turn for the worse in the course of his debilitating disease and unexpectedly died. We were two old farts who had pooled our financial resources to allow us both to continue flying into our dotage. It meant we could log two hours of our shared passion for the price of one with the additional advantage that if one of us screwed up the other could probably pull the fat out of the fire.

My research on the internet confirmed what I had heard from an airline pilot years ago who had learned the hard way, that the biggest problem of trying to spread ashes from an aircraft was that inevitably some if not all of the ashes backwashed into the aircraft cockpit and cabin. At the very least the ashes make a mess of the cabin with lingering ash bits that adhere like Velcro and are impossible to vacuum up. It has been known for airplane owners to find ash still clinging stubbornly to cabin fixtures–especially carpets–even years later!

At worst it has been recorded more than once that ashes have been sucked back into the cabin, blinding and choking the pilot, resulting in loss of situational awareness and catastrophic destruction of the aircraft–with fatal results. Many methods were suggested on the internet but most proved at best only partially successful. Moreover, it was also illegal in some countries as it definitely was in ours to spread human remains in the form of ashes from an aircraft in flight.

It was the ingenuity of my pint-sized crewman looking like an ancient mariner who came up with a successful contraption that had confounded so many others. He used a one gallon plastic fuel container, cut a four inch hole in the bottom and attached a six foot length of sump-pump hose to the spout using the screw cap which came with it to make an air-tight (or should I say ash-tight) seal. He fed the ashes, a large scoop-full at a time, into the four inch hole until the container was full, then covered the opening with a large sponge. Fortunately he was short but even so the cramped cabin made the reach down to the bag of sticky grey ash at his feet then up to the hole in the bottom of the upside-down gas container a real challenge. Inevitably some ashes spilled onto the floor. The pump hose was then fed out the open side window. By manipulating the hose in the slipstream he learned that at one certain sweet-spot all the ashes were totally sucked out. It took several scoops for each drop but in the end:

Mission Accomplished… well, almost.

Back at base, by the time we had secured the aircraft in the rapidly vanishing twilight, it was too dark to see inside the cabin very well. That’s even with the flashlight I always carried in my flight bag, but I had forgotten to check the batteries. Even with fresh batteries, my cataracts would have dimmed any signs of ash spillage inside the cabin anyway. I ran my hand along the side of the fuselage. I could sense rather than actually see a thin film of greasy fine gray ash which blended nicely with the (thankfully) faded paint-work extending all the way back to the tail. The aircraft was normally tied down outside so signs of our deceit would be nicely camouflaged by the accumulated bird droppings and bug guts.

Hopefully, the owner of the rented plane and the regulating authorities whose famous mantra is, “Hi, I’m from the government and I’m here to help you,” would never be any the wiser.

While my elderly co-conspirator, a veteran of the British Army’s D-Day glider assault on Pegasus Bridge, and I savored a cold beer to debrief the mission we toasted our dear friend whose earthly remains we had just spread to the four winds over his beloved lake… well, most of them anyway. I know he would have been pleased and at the same time highly amused by the blundering Keystone Cop antics of his two aging fellow members of the aviation brotherhood. This quip no doubt answers the question as to why aviators, after spending most of their lives in the air, seldom wish to have their remains spread to the four winds from an aircraft. We had tried to give our pal a worthy pilot’s farewell, nevertheless, I did have a feeling my good friend would be sticking around spiritually and literally to soar the friendly skies in that sorry old 172 for some time to come.

There were no tears, regrets or recriminations. Instead, we did what our friend would have wanted us to do. We ordered another beer.

9 Comments

  • Jim thanks for a well told story of my last wishes. Growing up around the world, I can’t see being confined to one small spot on this old orb for eternity. A friend of mine has done this before, with appropriate authorization from the powers that be. Almost a similar story, too. In his case though, he did have to clean his aircraft afterwards. It was after that event he found the device Larry mentions.

    • Thanks Larry and Doyle. As I understand it Canada’s Transport Canada probably has some provision for doing this legally but it probably means penetrating several levels of bureaucracy…lets see how can I put this delicately? Over the years my experiences with Transport Canada have not always been joyful.

      Jim G.

  • Great and well written story. It reminds me of a somewhat similar one.
    My former, now deceased, law partner Dave Swancar settled a will for a Winnipeger who had a cottage on Lake of the Woods,which he enjoyed very much during his lifetime.
    In his will the deceased stipulated that he wanted his ashes spread over the Lake of the Woods by Parsons Airways when they were on a fish haul ( due to the fact that the deceased was a frugal Winnipeger ) and wanted his estate to be billed the minimum.
    So Dave arranged for Keith Parsons to spread the ashes out over the lake as requested. Keith did so but reported back ” on the quiet ” that most of the ashes ended up on the back seat of the 180.
    Mission accomplished ( mainly at least ) with everyone happy.

  • Gives new meaning to the term “Blown Away.” Kinda reminiscent of the scene from the Jonathon Winters classic movie, The Loved One” where deceased pets are blasted into heaven by cannon shot!

    There are probably worse things than having your ashes embedded in the upholstery of an old Cessna, but I can’t think of any just now!

  • I remember doing this about 30+ years ago as a 21 year old CFI in Jacksonville,FL.
    Did it 3 times out over the Atlantic, 2 of them were perfect, but on one a pretty good amount of ash got spread on the back seats of the old C-172.

  • Well done my man! What a great read. Our friend would have been grinning from ear to ear with this rebellious adventure. Sure do miss you old buggers! Hope I get to be one some day.

  • I’ve done this successfully, right over San Francisco and the surrounds. A friend’s husband had had a wonderfully varied career managing hotels and properties, and she wished to scatter his ashes severally over places that were especially significant. On my prompting, she tied small bundles of ashes with biodegradable thin tissue paper and thread. As I recall, we dropped packets over Raccoon Strait, Muir Woods, Tiburon – and right over the top of the Mark Hopkins hotel, being careful to observe the altitude requirement.

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