Scattering cremated remains by airplane has been a labor of love for me and my family for the past 17 years. It started as a way to help a funeral director friend, but it has evolved into so much more. I am lucky to have found this opportunity that has given meaning and purpose to my flying.
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I grew up near the Fullerton Airport in Southern California. Watching the small planes flying overhead sparked a desire to learn how to fly. At the age of 17, I convinced my dad to take flying lessons with me. We would study together and chair-fly together, and then eventually we each got our licenses (I beat him by 11 days, but who’s counting?).
I didn’t start flying thinking it would be anything but a hobby, and I mapped out a career in healthcare because I had the urge to help people. I went to college to become a registered dental hygienist. I entertained my captive audience—the patients in my dental chair—with flying stories. I told them about flying to Mexico with the Flying Samaritans, about adventures my dad and I had, and stories of air racing. It helped keep their minds off what I was doing. Then one day a patient who was a funeral director came in for his hygiene appointment, and everything changed.
My funeral director patient asked me if I had ever considered scattering cremated remains by airplane. Apparently, they get occasional requests for this type of memorial service but didn’t know how to make it happen. The funeral director was searching for a pilot who was a professional who would follow the laws and perform this service with the dignity and respect it deserved. He helped me research the federal and state laws that regulate scattering of cremated remains. Once we determined that it could be done legally, I then started doing research into establishing a system and creating a device that would allow me to scatter the cremated remains safely and elegantly—I wanted to avoid having anything blow back into the plane or remove the paint from the fuselage. There are so many pilots with stories about how they tried to scatter ashes from a plane and found that it didn’t go as planned. My dad and I were able to engineer a device that allows me to scatter cremated remains cleanly and safely. Once all of these components were in place, I obtained a Cremated Remains Disposer permit from the state of California.
I was hooked after completing a couple of scatterings for this funeral director. I started my scattering company, called A Journey With Wings. We started out very simply, with a few unwitnessed scatterings at sea off the local coastline. Eventually, families started making more unique requests and asked to be more involved in the service. I realized that I was not just a pilot to these families. Instead, I was providing a memorial service as a professional in the funeral industry. Families and funeral directors sought me out as a professional who would provide a service that was reverent, dignified and legal.
Over the years, we have had the honor of flying scattering flights in many unique locations and in many ways that are as unique as the life of the person being memorialized. A Journey With Wings has taken us to many beautiful locations—over the Grand Canyon, over and around Santa Catalina Island, and to the peak of Mount Whitney and beyond. I am often in awe of the scenery we fly over. And sometimes the memorial flights are intricately detailed, where we perform the scattering with correct timing at a precise location to coincide with a service on the ground. We have customized flights to honor the person being memorialized—one time we mixed holi powder in a rainbow of colors into the cremated remains to reflect the unique brightness of the artist. Each scattering flight is unique because each family we serve is unique.
The one scattering flight that stands out the most in my mind is the flight Roger arranged for his wife, Geri, who was a world traveler with a joyous spirit. We helped scout locations to find what resembled a region of African grasslands, and the family chose the Malibu Creek State Park. The service was set so those in attendance could sit under a gorgeous tree staring out over the amber grasslands with the Malibu hills in the background. Those in attendance participated in an African drumming ceremony and sang to the music of the Beatles. Roger and his family worked with an event coordinator to make sure we released the cremated remains at just the right time and in just the right place. We circled in the distance, awaiting the radio call from the coordinator. When the time was right, Geri’s family and friends stepped out from under the tree and onto the grasslands to “In My Life” by the Beatles. It looked like a beautiful migration from our vantage point in the air. We circled once overhead and made a sweeping turn so they could follow us with their eyes to the hill in the background. The cremated remains were released right after the drum ceremony ended, and we could hear the joyful cheers from the people on the ground through the radio. It sent chills down my spine. I felt so lucky to be a part of it.
One of the reasons this flight stands out in my mind is that I was able to see the entire service from the perspective of those on the ground. Roger had a production crew who captured video of the memorial on the ground and in the air. To make sure we could fulfill the family’s wishes, we made an initial test flight with one videographer, Tony, in the plane and another videographer on the ground so they could get their shot angles and coordinate the memorial. We timed how long it would take to get from the departure airport to the scattering location and how long our orbit would take to get from our holding spot to make that giant, dramatic sweeping turn to grab the attention of the family and friends before we scattered over the rolling hills. We measured the time it would take to fly along the ridgeline so that the release would take place along the length of the ridgeline. When I asked Roger for his permission to include details of Geri’s service for this article, he sent me a message saying, “Tony and I still wonder to this day how we managed to pull it all off. It was you who were the centerpiece of that memorial, not a small part.”
Each scattering flight must follow rules and regulations. We are required to file the proper paperwork with the local health department, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Cemetery and Funeral Bureau of the California Department of Consumer Affairs. We are a Part 91 operation and work closely with the FAA and our local Flight Standards District Office (FSDO). We obtain all required permits from the land locations over which we scatter cremated remains—this requires coordination with superintendents of national parks, state parks and private property owners. A big portion of my job is figuring out how to get the permits I need to accomplish the wishes of my clients. That part isn’t as glamorous or fun as the flying part, but we have become very good at it.
Sometimes families aren’t completely sure what it is they want, or they cannot agree on what to do for their loved one who passed. Again, we must follow the letter of the law regarding power of attorney and next-of-kin regulation. Scattering cremated remains is an event with finality—we cannot get the remains back. On occasion, we will decline to scatter if the family is not in full agreement. Sometimes it feels like I am a grief counselor or a family counselor more than a pilot, but that is a critical aspect of how A Journey With Wings cares for our clients.
A Journey With Wings is a family affair. It is a family business. My husband is a part-time office manager, and my sons often help me with paperwork and by preparing the cremated remains for the scattering flights. My dad has been my favorite co-pilot ever since we started flying together when I was 17 years old, and that never gets old.
We are always seeking out new location and memorial options for families. We like to take on new challenges. In this business, the sky really is the limit.