Never Again Online: Ashes in the airplane

January 1, 2010

The worst flight I ever made was an attempt to do a favor for a friend.

My friend’s grandfather had recently passed away, and his family thought spreading his ashes over his ranch in Oklahoma would be a memorable and fitting tribute.  I had been flying for almost 20 years and was honored to be able to fulfill this simple request.

I had logged about 1,800 hours and had an instrument rating, and I owned  a Beech Sierra – a great little airplane. But like all airplanes, it had some design features that I might like to have changed, and one of those was the small, square vent window. I had never quite understood just what it was meant for, and on this flight, I was about to discover something it was definitely not meant to do.

Before flying to Oklahoma to fulfill my friend’s request, I carefully studied the VFR chart for the area and plotted the GPS coordinates of his family’s ranch. I wanted to make sure I didn’t drop his grandfather’s ashes in the wrong pasture. In fact, his grandfather hadn’t been on speaking terms with the family that owned the adjoining ranch, so it was doubly important for the sake of the survivors to make sure I didn’t miss.

The day I was to spread the ashes, I flew north from Texas, crossed the Red River, and was soon over the ranches of southwestern Oklahoma. I identified the proper ranch and began a slow circle overhead, judging the wind and carefully calculating the place to drop the ashes so the wind would carry them over the property.

I opened the small window on the pilot’s side of the Beech Sierra and immediately felt the suction. Wind doesn’t blow into the airplane when the window is open—just the opposite. It creates a suction that draws air out. I opened the container that held my friend’s grandfather’s ashes and positioned it as close to the window as possible so the air would draw the ashes out of my airplane.

But the container holding the ashes was fairly large, and I had a difficult time getting it close enough to the square window for the suction to take hold. My GPS was telling me I was approaching the perfect position to drop the ashes, but the curved window was frustrating my best efforts. I tipped the container up, but it had no effect. The ashes stayed put in the jar.

So I turned the jar sideways and pushed the open end into the open window, hoping the slipstream would carry the ashes away. The slipstream took hold all right, but not in the way I intended.

All at once, the entire cabin filled with smoke. Except it wasn’t smoke. It was ashes.

I couldn’t breathe, and I didn’t want to breathe. I was afraid I’d choke on my friend’s grandfather’s ashes. I dropped the jar, and it rolled around the floor of the airplane, spilling more ashes and creating a gray cloud inside the cockpit.

I tried sticking my nose out the vent window, but that didn’t work. The blast made tears come to my eyes so that I had even more difficulty seeing.

I reached over to the passenger-side door and tried to open it. The open door might create enough suction to pull the ashes out that side of the airplane and clear up my side. But the wind kept the door closed. It wouldn’t open at all. I looked around the inside of the airplane and saw that it was coated in ashes. Every inch was covered in a gray film.

I swear I could hear my friend’s grandpa laughing at me.

Anyone watching my airplane would have concluded it was being flown by a drunkard as it wandered erratically in one direction, then another. Between me trying to poke my nose out the window into the hurricane-force slipstream, breathing the dust, and trying repeatedly to clear the tears from my eyes, the situation must have seemed quite comical.

It took four hours of vacuuming to get my friend’s grandfather out of my airplane.

Once that was done, I drove to his family’s ranch, stood with my back to the prairie wind, and dumped the contents of the vacuum bag over the fence. Grandfather was finally home to stay.

My Sierra is no worse for the experience, and I’ve learned that you can’t dump ashes out a four-inch vent window when you’re circling at 130 knots.

If you want to have a loved one’s ashes spread by air—call someone else. It was an honor to be asked to be part of a final tribute, but this is one aerial experience I will not repeat.

George Dalton, AOPA 01135004, resides in Grapevine, Texas.