If you’ve been flying for any time and haven’t been asked to scatter somebody’s ashes, another “nondestructive testing” maneuver, you probably will be. I think it’s illegal but nobody seems to care (except maybe in New Jersey). Besides, the evidence is pretty hard to collect.
See, while “ashes to ashes and dust to dust” sounds perfectly reasonable, actual remains are more, well, substantial. After a practice run with the fireplace variety, I learned the real stuff is chunkier — like nuggets embedded in a fine ash. And while you might assume air whizzes by the cockpit toward the rear of the airplane in flight ... it doesn’t. Real pilots know that Daniel Bernoulli’s “faster speed equals lower pressure” theory is a fairy tale and have long accepted the truth, which is that airplanes fly purely by magic. But whatever laws of physics or magic are at play here, blithely flinging a bunch of remains out an open window means you and your airplane interior will be wearing them. On the other hand, if they’re pieces of a friend, I wouldn’t worry about it because he would surely understand — like Jim.
My neighbor loved to fly with me in the 180, and when he lost a 10-year battle with brain cancer, his widow, Holly, asked if I’d scatter Jim’s ashes over the Ohio River. Since Kentucky and Ohio have forever been at odds about who owns the river, it’s a great place to break the law. I’d borrowed a long section of 2-inch flexible tubing from Signature Engine across the ramp, but I’d strongly advise going for 3-inch. Over the middle of the river I told Holly to stick one end of the tubing in the container while I fed the other end out to what I figured seemed like a good distance. On a scale of one to 10 — 10 being best — I guess it was only about a five. We were both teary (from ashes and emotion) but I was relieved to see Holly smiling, quite sure that Jim was happy being part of this airplane he loved. And I was happy to have him along.
I’d forgotten about the fine coating of dust when, a few weeks later, one of the airport kids wanted to wash and wax the 180. We made the deal but I forgot to tell him to skip the interior. He did a great job, too great. I included a considerable bonus after his comment, “Dude, your interior was full of dust or something. ... You been flying through volcanic ash or sandstorms?”
So here’s my best take for a successful ashes run. Put them in a flimsy paper sack with the top lightly folded over and a length of string attached to one corner of the bag. Slow the airplane and launch it out the window, releasing the string when it’s well clear. To be safe, avoid low altitudes or densely populated areas — and New Jersey.
Having been unfairly disqualified for cheating in the Flying Angels bomb drop (me ... 200 feet ... ridiculous!), I brightened upon spying unbroken flour sacks out near the runway. With some arm twisting, my sister Mary helped me collect a bunch and held them on her lap in the back of the AT-6/SNJ; I was relishing the thought of the havoc and mayhem we could wreak at friends’ strips on this pretty Sunday afternoon. We took off as usual with the canopy open, but in this case that was a big mistake. The flour sacks weren’t as intact as they looked, and when we came up on the mains with the slipstream roaring through and swirling around inside the cockpit, flour erupted in great clouds of blinding white dust. I couldn’t see anything. I couldn’t even get my eyes open. Somehow we staggered into the air, noses and throats clogged and strange noises emanating from my sister in back. Damn, we were going to die with the remains, our ashes, all mixed up with fuel, oil, blood and cheap, non-organic, all-purpose Gold Medal flour.
I blindly yanked the canopy closed and somehow communicated to Mary to dump the sacks on the floor. Then we flew around, choking and wheezing and snorting until I got my eyes squinted open and could see through the blur of flour. In the mirror Mary looked like an Alaskan malamute with floury eyelashes and brows; she was still making funny noises. Blessedly, the wind was right down the pipe at Piqua, and we got the “J” down in one piece.
Mark Runge, who maintains all the airplanes at Hartzell (and also flies the “J”), still gets a funny look in his eye whenever this story comes up. Well, Mary and I really did try to clean it up, but do you have any idea how deep down and far back the bottom of a “J” extends? We gave up and sneaked off in the 180 with fervent prayers that whoever “de-floured” the “J” wouldn’t end up with white lung disease.