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Words Aloft: Ashes Away

The storyteller’s hands fly about, energetically reenacting a disaster aloft. “Wind was whipping all around, and the visibility went to zero! Honest to goodness, I couldn’t see outside for a long moment—it felt like forever!”

It’s a story I’ve heard told in any number of FBOs with minor variations, recollections of when a favor went terribly wrong. “I was laughing and crying and worried I would hit the trees because my buddy’s ashes were all in my eyes. The ashes washed out of my clothes, but a little bit of Don goes along for the ride whenever I fly now. I’ll never get all the ashes out of the nooks and crannies of my Cherokee!”

A family friend asked if I could help him find a pilot to spread a friend’s ashes over a farm. “If you don’t mind it being a weekday, I can help you out,” I offered.

Saying no when a friend asks for a favor is difficult for me, and I volunteered for the mission before even contemplating the machine I had available. My Mooney is a fine traveling machine. It’s relatively comfortable, quick enough, and efficient. I’ve crossed significant swaths of the country in it, enjoying the experience. It really isn’t great at flying low and slow; the wing on the bottom kind of gets in the way of seeing what’s below, and the only window that can be opened in flight is the pilot’s ice window, which is only a little bigger than a deck of cards.


In other words, it’s a fine machine for anything except trying to spread a person’s ashes across a farm.

A Piper J-3 Cub would be perfect, and I have enough pieces to build most of a Cub, but the fella’s younger relatives would likely need their ashes spread before I get around to that. A Cessna with an opening window would do, but try getting a Mooney owner into a 172. You’ll have better luck getting a McLaren owner to drive your Toyota Camry to town.

I needed to find someone with a suitable airplane for the mission, so I did the right thing and figured out how to jettison a person’s mortal remains out the ice window of a 165 mph airplane without wearing all of the ashes in the process. Some of the local EAA guys had spread ashes from the gear leg of a 172 using a PVC pipe rig with a pull-string trigger to release the contents. I could have done that, but how would I retract the landing gear then? Ain’t no Mooney driver gonna buzz around with the gear down if they can help it. We pay a lot of extra insurance for the privilege of retracting our gear. Another idea floated was hanging a hose out the window, positioning it into a lower-pressure area and using a $75.00 shop vacuum to pull the ashes out of the window.

I flew a test run, with a friend—using a setup I’d heard would work—and in my mind it was the perfect solution for the job. Take a brown paper lunch bag, fill it with ashes, and tie a string to it. Throw it out the window, while holding onto the string, and the bag will shred, spreading the powdery contents in a puff to scatter across the land below.

It was simple, foolproof, and cheap: a perfect solution.

AdobeStock 581227111 Editorial Use Only
Monday dawned a little cloudy and foggy, but the clouds burned off quickly, and I hopped over to the nearest airport to meet the son and daughter of the fella we’d be spreading across the farm. [Photo: Adobe Stock]

But why leave perfection alone? I did what I always do and overengineered the thing. I put an index card into the bottom of the bag to reinforce it and punched two holes through the bag bottom and its reinforcement. I looped some paracord through the holes, tied it in a bowline, and then tied another loop into the other end of the string.


On a test flight with a friend, using stale Cream of Wheat instant cereal as the test medium, I looped the end of the string around my wrist and slowed to about 80. I had wrapped the bag around on itself and ran two loops of paracord around that. Holding the assemblage in my left hand and flying with my right, I stuck the bag out into the breeze and released it. The brown parcel rolled out of my hand and shot aft in the breeze, a good 2 feet before it hit the end of the line. Tethered in the breeze by its reinforced base, the bag stayed intact for about a millisecond as it unfurled and tore away from the string in a puff of milled grain. I cheered and we flew back to home base, where I realized there was a fine dust where I’d sat the bag on the floor ahead of my seat. The plan wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t a disaster.

There was no time left to refine the design. I had to fly a work trip, and our plan was to spread the ashes the morning after my return.

Monday dawned a little cloudy and foggy, but the clouds burned off quickly, and I hopped over to the nearest airport to meet the son and daughter of the fella we’d be spreading across the farm. They wanted to go along for the flight, so I’d opted for the longer, paved runway for our mission. They walked into the FBO carrying a cardboard tube the size of a small artillery shell—its contents would certainly not fit into the single brown bag rig I’d built to go out the Mooney’s window. Time was on my side, as I’d told them to arrive early. After having a discussion about what to expect and where on their farm they wanted the ashes dropped, I came up with a plan.

“Why don’t y’all stay in here with the air conditioning while I load your dad up?” I followed with my truest words of the day: “The next few moments might not be the most dignified part of the day, and there’s no reason y’all need to be part of that.” It was a hot day, and AC was a hard amenity to pass up, so they agreed.


On the ramp, I fished another brown paper bag out of the baggage bin and cut another length of cord with my penknife. Hearing voices behind me, I glanced over my shoulder to find a group of 20 or so kids and their chaperones, having come from a summer camp for a tour of the airport. The FBO manager was explaining that I was preflighting my airplane, and someone asked what exactly I was doing. The manager and I locked eyes for a moment, and he mumbled something to the crowd and they shuffled off into the FBO hangar as I spilled a bit of our guest on the ramp while filling the second bag. Some kids probably thought they’d witnessed a pilot smuggling cocaine. Oh, to be that glamorous. If only they knew.

With two bags filled as much as would fit out the ice window, there was still a little bit of remains left. It was time to swallow some pride and ask for a little help. Back into the FBO I marched, carrying the partly filled cardboard tube. “Friends, it’s getting a little windy out there. I don’t have a lot of practice dropping ashes from an airplane and, frankly, most of them may blow clear of the farm before they settle. Do y’all want to carry this bit back with you to ensure at least some of him really does settle where you’re intending?”

His son looked me in the eye with a smile, and his answer saved the shreds of my dignity I was about to sacrifice: “It was [either] spread his ashes from an airplane or plant them with a tree, and we had a tough time trying to make the decision. We’ll plant this part with the tree, and both ideas will work out.”

The flight itself went well. We launched early enough for a sightseeing lap over my passengers’ homes, and we made a high circle over the farm to confirm my memory from the test hop the week prior. I lined up on the upwind boundary of the property and let the first salvo go with the same sound effects a 7-year-old might use if pretending to drop bombs from a toy plane. With a jolt, I realized I was speaking into the microphone and that his kids could hear.


I very politely apologized for my less-than-sensitive sound effects. “Don’t worry. Dad would have loved every moment of this, your noises included,” the son said. “He had a great sense of humor.”

“Well, that’s good that we’re pretty compatible,” I said. “Seems like a bit of him may tag along for a few more flights with me!”

They took it in a figurative sense, and I just left things as they settled, including the small pile of powder on the carpet next to my left foot.

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of Plane & Pilot magazine. 

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