Aunt Stella’s Last Flight

I fly my first ash scattering mission.

I was sitting in Stan’s hangar down in the high-rent district of Wickenburg Airport, enjoying a latte with a bunch of pilots and their wives, when two men and a boy approached us. They were on foot, far from the terminal building, and appeared as if they were on a mission. I wasn’t surprised when they came into the hangar and one of them said, “Maria?”

“That’s me,” I replied, rising. I met them halfway to the table to see what they wanted without disturbing the others.

What they wanted was a pilot who could help them scatter their aunt’s ashes over Vulture Mine. That’s where her husband’s ashes had been scattered, from an airplane, years ago. I asked if they had the permission of the folks who owned Vulture Mine. They told me they didn’t. I told them that I’m sure the owners would say it was okay and that I wasn’t comfortable hovering over private property to scatter ashes without getting the permission. They told me they’d talk to the owners. Then they set up a time for the ceremony: 3 PM that day. And they left.

I rejoined the coffee gang and told them about the assignment. I mentioned that I was heavy on fuel and, because of the time of day and weight of two of the three passengers, I had too much fuel on board. I’d have to siphon some off. Dave offered me his siphon hose and fetched it from his hangar across the way. They we talked about the pilot who had landed very long and very fast in what looked like a King Air and how he must have needed to clean his shorts when he finally got his plane to a stop at the end of the runway.

I went back to my hangar and tried the siphon hose. But I’m a nervous nellie when it comes to sucking gasoline out of a tank, so I went to Stewart Hardware and bought a siphon pump. It was fancier than what I had in mind (which was a hose with a bulb on it) but it did the job. I also bought an 8-foot length of 4″ plastic duct, with the idea of using that to send the ashes on their way, and a long necked oil funnel. I went back to the airport.

The siphon worked fine, although I did manage to get about a pint of fuel on the hangar floor and my right pants leg. 100LL evaporates quickly, so it wasn’t a big deal. I filled my two 5-gallon storage cans and checked my fuel gauges. Much better.

Then I started fooling around with the hose. About an hour later, I had it secured at the vent for the door behind mine — opposite the tail rotor, of course. The vent was completely sealed off with white duct tape and the bottom end of the duct was attached to the skid, right in front of the front leg.

Oh, did I mention that I had to run back to Stewart Hardware for duct tape and wire ties? I did.

Why all this bother? Well, any pilot can tell you stories about ash scatterings and none of the stories are pleasant. Most have the deceased’s ashes coming back into the aircraft or, worse yet, flying around inside the aircraft when the container is opened in preparation for the scattering. I didn’t want these people’s aunt in my hair or my carpet. She deserved better than that. So I had to come up with a solution for getting her out without 1) causing a hazard to the aircraft and 2) getting all over the inside of the aircraft.

I looked at my ductwork design. I started imagining the helicopter in flight, doing 80 knots. I imagined the plastic duct tearing off. I imagined looking very unprofessional in front of my clients.

There had to be a better solution.

I made a phone call to Guidance Helicopters in Prescott to give them my credit card number for a 100-hour inspection I’d had done the week before. “Is John there?” I asked when I was done. I was told he was out on a flight. “Tell him that I called and that I’m doing my first ash scattering mission. Tell him I’d appreciate any advice he has.”

The guy who answered the phone told me what he knew about it. It seems that he was a CFI doing duty on Fridays at the desk. He advised using a paper bag and suggested that I put an M-80 in it so it explodes in the air, scattering the ashes. I hope he wasn’t serious.

I’d already decided on a bag. I’d sew one up out of fabric. We’d put the ashes in and I’d attach it to the skid. One of the passengers would hold the top closed, using a drawstring. At the right time, he’d pull out the drawsting and push out the bag. The ashes would go out the bag.

I needed to make a bag. So I locked up my hangar and drove to Alco, where I bought some flowery fabric, ribbon, fishing weights, glue remover, and two other things I didn’t need but bought anyway. I went home, took out my sewing machine and ironing board, and sewed up the bag, hand-stitching fishing weights into the top end, out of sight behind a hem. It looked pretty and functional. I drove back to the airport and, while I was on the road, doing about 40 miles per hour, dangled the bag out the window. It whipped around dangerously. I started to realize that the weights might cause more harm than good.

I showed the bag to Ed Taylor, my Wickenburg mechanic. He’d been in on every step of the process and had cut the funnel for me for the original design. Twice. He admired the bag but seemed doubtful about the way it would work. I was already doubtful.

I took the ductwork off the helicopter and cleaned off the duct tape residue with the glue remover. I fiddled around with how the bag would attach to the helicopter. I didn’t like any of the methods.

Plan C began to look like the only obvious solution. A paper bag. Toss it out with the top open and the ashes should scatter. But it couldn’t be any old bag — like Ed’s lunch bag. It had to be a pretty bag. I hopped back in the Jeep and drove to Osco.

By now, of course, the day was more than half gone. It was 2:00 PM and the clients were expected in an hour. I was nervous about the flight, primarily because I wasn’t sure about the solution.

I looked around Osco for a pretty paper bag and came up empty. Then I tried Alco. Bingo. They had a bunch of very pretty little shopping bags, designed for gift giving. I picked one with colorful flowers, paid for it, and started back to the airport. Again.

My cell phone rang. It was John Stonecipher. He told me the best thing to do was to put the ashes in a paper bag, bring the helicopter into an out-of-ground effect hover over the site, and toss out the bag. The bag would open and the ashes would scatter. No danger to the helicopter, no messy remains in your face. Although he hadn’t used this technique, a friend of his had when scattering the remains of a close friend. John was sure that this was the best way.

That made me feel a lot better. I returned to the airport with the bag and waited for my clients.

When they arrived, they were all dressed up as if they’d just come from…well, a funeral. They were quiet, but in good spirits. But they gave me quite a scare when I saw the little trunk one of the held. It looked as if it were alligator skin and it was large enough to contain about six copies of my latest book (720 pages a pop). My bag was not going to be big enough. But then they opened the trunk and there was a much smaller plastic box inside. It looked as if I still had a chance. And when they opened that box, I breathed a sign of relief. Aunt Stella, as they told me her name was, fit into a small plastic bag. She’d certainly fit in the pretty paper bag I’d bought.

We transferred most of Aunt Stella into the paper bag and one of the men held onto her. The rest of Aunt Stella went back into the plastic box and the alligator skin box and was stored in the trunk of the convertible they were driving. We went over to the helicopter, where it was waiting on the ramp. I’d already taken off the door for the seat behind mine. I gave them a safety briefing, described how we were going to release Aunt Stella, and we climbed aboard. The kid — well, all dressed up, he looked like a young man — sat up front because it was his first helicopter ride. The two men sat in back.

We took off and headed south. I pointed out a few sights of interest, but headed straight toward Vulture Mine, climbing the whole time. I wanted us to be at least 1500 feet up when we took care of business. Aunt Stella’s nephew asked me again how to release the ashes and I told him. Then I brought the helicopter into a high hover, one of the men said a few words, and Aunt Stella was launched.

“Oh, shit!” It was the man who’d tossed Aunt Stella out. “It didn’t open.”

I was watching the bag and saw it fall. It did indeed look as if it hadn’t opened, but I was sure it had. There’s no way it couldn’t have. I think the problem was that we were watching a brightly colored bag tumble through the air and the light colored ashes were just not visible. I assured everyone that the bag had opened. Next time, I won’t use such a bright bag. Then the ashes will be more visible as they scatter.

The bag landed right near Vulture Mine.

I asked if they wanted to circle once, and they said no. So I gave them a little tour of the area. I have a half-hour minimum for flights and this was an opportunity for my youngest passenger to turn a sad day into a positive experience. So we did a modified Grand Tour, returning to the airport about 30 minutes after we’d departed.

My passengers were satisfied, if not happy. They’d honored Aunt Stella’s wishes, to be scattered in the area where her husband’s ashes had been scattered years before. I like to image tiny particles of their remains mingling together right now, on the desert floor.

And, as one of the men said, “We got away cheap. Where else could you bury someone for two hundred bucks?”

What do you think?