Dana’s Last Flight

I take a passenger on his last journey.

It all started months ago. Dana had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. He called, wanting to join a flight up the Hassayampa River so he could tell me where he wanted his ashes scattered. Talk about planning ahead.

His friend Joe had gotten a custom half-hour tour for Christmas. Joe and his wife invited Dana to take the third passenger seat in the helicopter for the flight. When they arrived at the airport, I was very surprised. Dana didn’t look good. He was having trouble walking and had become bloated from the treatments he was going through. But he was alert and eager to go on the flight. He sat behind Joe in the left passenger seat. Joe snapped photos for the book he was co-authoring with Dana.

When we got near Seal Peak, Dana pointed it out. “I want to be scattered on the side closer to the Hassayampa River,” he told us. “So my ashes get washed into the river.”

I assured him I’d make sure it was done to his request. He wanted to know how much it would cost and did some math. He said he’d have the money set aside in his estate.

Oddly enough, I didn’t feel uncomfortable about it at all. I felt kind of good. I was getting final instructions — emphasis on “final” — from a customer. There would be no guessing as to whether the place we’d drop his remains was right. I knew it would be right.

Dana got a little better, then took a turn for the worse. His caregiver called me one day. She told me he talked all the time about his helicopter flight. She said she wanted to take him for another one. We talked about money. I could tell my regular prices were a bit beyond her means. But Dana was a lifelong Wickenburg resident, one of the folks who had helped shaped the town. There was a street named after his father and a flat named after his mother. The town claimed they’d be naming one of the peaks near his home after him. Surely I could contribute something to his last days.

His two caregivers brought him to the airport at the appointed time. He didn’t look good at all. His caregiver had to practically lift him into the helicopter. But he sat up tall and seemed alert, even though he didn’t talk much. His two caregivers climbed into the back seats — it costs the same to fly one passenger as three.

A while later, we were airborne, back toward Seal Peak. He wanted to be sure that I knew where to scatter him and that he’d have enough money set aside to pay for it. From there, we flew up the Hassayampa. I asked him where the old dam had been, the one that had washed away in the 1880s and killed all those Chinese workers. He pointed it out. He also pointed out the place downstream where some of the dirt from the dam had washed up. I took him southeast, past the Sheep Mountain house. They all enjoyed the views of the lake. Then west, over Santa Domingo Wash, across Grand Avenue, and around Vulture Peak. We were flying past Rancho de los Caballeros on our way to the airport when the low fuel light flickered. Time to land.

We’d been out longer than I’d planned. But it was worth it. Dana really enjoyed the flight. And his two caregivers, who probably needed the break, enjoyed it, too.

Dana passed away about a week and a half ago. One of his caregivers called to give me the news. She also dropped off one of Dana and Joe’s books at the airport for me. It was about Constellation Road and it had a few of the pictures Joe had taken during that first flight.

There was a big write-up in the paper about Dana. I didn’t see it because I don’t read the local paper.

Joe called later in the week. We made arrangements for Friday. Dana’s brother and sister would be joining him. I explained how the ash scattering worked: we’d wrap Dana’s remains in tissue paper and toss it out over the designated scattering area.

Joe, John, and Sophie came in two cars. They were surprisingly cheerful. We went into the airport’s back room to prepare Dana’s ashes in their tissue paper wrapper. I used two sheets — I didn’t want any parts of Dana slipping out during the flight.

We took a little scenic flight over town and past Dana’s house. Then we headed toward Seal Peak. I started to climb. I wanted to be at least 700 feet over the peak so the ash package would open and scatter.

My passengers pointed out places of interest along the way. They were enjoying the flight.

I circled the peak. The wind was blowing hard from the southwest. Joe saw the spot he wanted to aim for, but when he dropped the package, the wind took it toward the river. He saw a puff of dust — a puff of Dana, in fact — before the paper disappeared from view. We headed back to the airport along Constellation Road, making a short detour to try to figure out which peak the town was naming after Dana.

On the ground, Dana’s brother asked what he owed me. I knew Dana had set aside some money for the flight. I told him that it was my honor to take Dana on his last ride. I told them that the three of them should go out and have a nice lunch on Dana and me.

When they invited me to join them, I had to turn them down. Too much writing work to do. But maybe another time.

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