Scattering Ashes Is More Than Flying For A Pilot

Scattering ashes
For many familiies, and not just those of pilots flown west, the final act of love is having their family member’s ashes scattered in a special place.

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.

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Going Direct: After Draco’s Crash: Lessons In Being a Pilot

Draco after the crash
Video footage from Mike Patey shows Draco after the crash.

Unless you live in a vacuum, by now you know that Draco crashed yesterday while taking off from Reno Stead Airport. The occupants, Mike Patey, his wife and fellow pilot Chandra Brooks Patey, weren’t injured in the mishap, thank goodness.

But Draco was destroyed. And mind you, it was a plane like no other.  The backwoods wunderplane is a one-of-a-kind marvel. Mike Patey, a Utah-based entrepreneur and backcountry enthusiast, wanted a really cool bush plane so he decided to modify a Wilga toward that end. It is, admittedly, a stretch to call Draco a modified Wilga. It’s like calling Michelangelo’s statue of David “a modified block of marble.” It’s true, but it’s also a profound and absurd understatement.

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The magnitude of Patey’s brilliance as a designer and a craftsman was evident in Draco. In creating the plane, Mike Patey (his twin brother Mark Patey is also a prominent aviator and aviation entrepreneur) replaced the six-cylinder opposed gas piston engine with a 680-shp Pratt & Whitney turboprop, created new landing gear, added leading edge high-lift slats, completely redesigned the flaps and ailerons and that’s just the beginning of the hundreds of changes he made in making Draco. Draco graces our March 2019 cover, the brilliant shot the work of Jim Raeder, and Sarina Larson’s article about the machine and the guy who built is a great read.

The video of the crash, taken by Jason Somes, shows the sequence in heart-rending clarity. As Patey describes it, 

“[We] took off, took a big hit, a big gust. Should have taken another runway, or not gone flying As a result] that’s what’s left of Draco” he said as he pointed the camera phone toward the wrecked plane and focused in briefly.  “Amazingly,” he continued, “when that wing lifted up, got that first bump, I had enough aileron and rudder. I kicked into it trying to hold it and get the nose into the wind. I actually felt like it was no big deal, and then I had another wind bump that was like nothing I’ve ever felt and it lifted that left wing (he indicates the position of the wing as being directly vertical) and I had no aileron control and I just… I’ve never felt like a kite in my life … I had no control whatsoever.

But then he goes on to clarify that remark. “I had control when I made that first mistake, to not wait it out a little bit longer. And I had control when I made the second mistake and got on the runway and felt [the crosswind] completely compressing my right suspension trying to lift my wing. But once I got airborne and got that second big bump and it turned me 90 degrees to the wind, I was along for the ride.”

In the video he recorded after the crash, Patey said something that makes it clear the kind of pilot he is, and the kind of person, too. “This was all my fault. 100 percent. I hope we all learn something and become better pilots because of my mistake, he said, and then after a short, reflective pause, added “…all my mistake.”

There’s even more. If you haven’t watched the video, please do. It’s an extraordinary commentary on an accident by someone who knows what he’s talking about and his humility and honesty allow him to admit his mistake.  He owns it. Bravo.

A few commenters online have taken Patey to task for his decision to take off in such gusty conditions, which is, in my view, a mean spirited, even cowardly thing to do after the pilot himself has already admitted that mistake. Some people. Enough about them.

For the rest of us, we can indeed learn from Mike Patey’s honesty and levelheaded analysis. More than once I’ve I found myself at the controls of an airplane about to do something I shouldn’t do, just like Mike at the takeoff end of that runway on that very gusty day. And even though I knew full well I shouldn’t, in a couple of cases I did that stupid thing anyway. And I am here today to make this point only because I got lucky.

So when we read about the crash of a plane, especially when it was being flown by an experienced and talented pilot, like Mike Patey, none of us should ever think, “That would never happen to me.” Instead, we need to ask ourselves how we could prevent that from happening to us if one day, maybe tomorrow, we find ourselves in similar circumstances.

That is one of two overarching points that Patey made post crash. Take his mistake as a lesson. The other point is this: He was lucky to be there next to his beautiful wife. It could have turned out much worse. Similar wrecks have. They dodged a bullet. We all did.

There’s a great shot at the end of the video of Mike and Chandra celebrating the fact of their being alive with a big kiss, the wreckage of their ruined plane in soft focus behind them.  

Mike and Chandra Patey
Mike and Chandra Patey share a kiss after surviving their plane crashing.

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Draco Destroyed. Video Of the Crash

Mike Patey and his wife Chandra are uninjured after Draco, the incredible turboprop STOL plane Mike Patey made, ground looped and was destroyed. Patey was taking off in very gusty conditions at Reno Stead, with winds registering to greater than 40 knots with a big crosswind component. The plane ground-looped as it was taking off, going off the side of the runway and spinning around, catching a wing and raising a cloud of dust. 
 
Patey in another video blamed the crash on his own mistake in attempting the takeoff in the conditions. 
 
Our hearts go out to Mike and his family on the loss of an incredible plane. At the same time, the biggest news is that no one was hurt. 
 
 
Video by Jason Somes. Follow him on Instagram, @highalphaairshows.

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October 2019 Crossword Key

Crossword Puzzle, October 2019

Across

1. Concept plane from Airbus that “flaps” in response to gusts and turbulence, 2 words

8. GPS picture, for example

9. It’s sometimes required for an approach

10. Route, for short

12. Large tree

14. What the pilot did during an autoland

16. Suffix for depend and cool

17 . Instrument ____

19. U.S.__, abbr. for military fliers

21. Automatic Flight Control System, abbr.

23. Disconcerting feature of some runways

24. Slip or crab in one

27. Roman 51

28. Some of these are split

29. Least-used control surface by newbies

30. Formerly known as, in high society

31. 51 and Terminal Control, for example

32. A co-pilot’s chief duty?

Down

1. Eviation’s electric-powered concept plane

2. Management of Heathrow and Gatwick, for short

3. Upward current of air used by gliders

4. Determines one’s position

5. None of these on 195 or 177

6. Silent agreement

7. Dry

11. Weight measurement

13. Albatros was an example, but not the Camel

15. Geologic time period

17. Crash ___

18. What a damper damps

20. Gradually vanishes

22. Mojave and Matrix are two

24.  Plane owners’ concern

25.  Turns violently or uncontrollably

26.  Not the front or the rear

28. It used to be CAA

29. ___V Approach

Crossword Key, October 2019

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Getting Pilots To Speak Up

Pilots need to speak up
Pilots need to speak up more to help others from doing something risky.

Not long after I moved to the rural area where I now reside, an experienced pilot who lived just down the road from me departed from our local airport in his single-engine airplane with his 9-year-old daughter on board. The marine layer that visits the airport almost daily at that time of the year had yet to dissipate, and the experienced but non-instrument rated pilot must have been in a hurry, taking off in zero visibility. The flight lasted no more than a couple of minutes, because shortly after he departed, he, his young passenger and the crinkled airplane were found in the nearby riverbed.

Neither the knowledge of that accident nor my having attended the emotional funeral kept me from taking flying lessons a couple of years later and eventually receiving my own ticket. During one of my flying lessons, I was talking about that particular accident with my instructor, a grizzled misanthrope named Floyd who had been flying, he told me proudly, before the invention of steam gauges. Floyd revealed that he had been sitting in the local FBO the morning of the accident, and the pilot—who was well-known at the airport—had come in to chat with a few of the other pilots who were hanging around waiting for fog to dissipate. My neighbor told the pilots he was about to take off, and soon after he left, the remaining pilots in the FBO placed bets on whether he would make it. Floyd told me, with a sheepish grin, that he had won the bet.

Naively, I asked Floyd if anyone attempted to stop him. Floyd paused for a moment, looked at me quizzically, and said, “Of course not.”

I understood how pilots did risky, and even stupid things, because pilots also happen to be humans. But I had a harder time understanding the tendency to sit by and do or say nothing when witnessing someone about to do something potentially harmful not just to themselves but also to a vulnerable child.

I imagine that, in all likelihood, I may well have said nothing in the same circumstance. Yet it bothered me enough that I continue to struggle with it today, now some 15 years later. Fortunately, there have been a slew of researchers who have been trying to understand the phenomenon they have come to call the “bystander effect.” Stated simply, the bystander effect occurs when a person becomes less likely to intervene in a dangerous situation when in the company of others. The original research was sparked by the murder of Kitty Genovese in New York, in which dozens of people were alleged to have heard her cries for help and did nothing. After many years of diligent sleuthing, it turned out that, in fact, there had been many calls to the police, but the newspapers mistakenly reported otherwise, and the story caught on. Despite the inaccuracies of the news reports, the years of research that followed illuminated some interesting patterns.

When around others, people often experience a diffusion of responsibility. Each person might expect the other to intervene, so any one person is less likely to do so. Also, influenced by those around them, people look to their social group to determine the norms of behavior. If nobody intervenes, then that becomes the expectation.

My own impression of my fellow pilots is that we tend to be fairly rugged individualists. Most of us don’t like to be told what to do or how to do it. It’s a form of machismo, which is an understandable and maybe even necessary ingredient in being able to take the risks we do by simply stepping into a cockpit and opening the throttle. Confident in ourselves and our decision-making, we expect not to be interfered with or confronted. As members of the club, we’ll grant other pilots the same respect and dignity in return and not question their decisions. This, I believe, is embedded in aviation culture and lends itself to not confronting others when we see that they are about to do something that places them and potentially others at risk.

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Certainly, whether we speak up or not depends on how risky we believe the situation might be. In the case of taking off in zero visibility, most pilots will agree that it’s a fairly simple thing to do, though one should never attempt to do so without being instrument rated and current. Just fix your eyes on the gauges and respond accordingly. But the problem, of course, is that each time we do something dangerous that works out fine, the behavior is reinforced, making it more likely that we’ll do it again. Every time we talk on the cellphone while driving a car and don’t get into an accident broadens the illusion that it’s safe, so why not do it again?

If you believe that having a pilot certificate carries with it the responsibility to protect others, then relinquishing that responsibility may have painful consequences. Not long ago, I heard about a pilot whose airplane’s engine failed at a critical moment, and the pilot was unable to gain control and perished. The odd thing about that incident wasn’t that it happened but that people at his local airport had known that he had rarely done annuals, and his cowling and fuselage were often streaked with oil. Apparently, no one said anything to him. “Live and let live” may be a good philosophy, as long as one is willing to accept that sometimes doing so will result in “live and let die.”

There doesn’t need to be others in the vicinity in order to avoid confrontation. It can occur in the cockpit when a co-pilot yields to the authority of a more senior pilot or out of simply fearing the repercussions. The person engaging in “stupid” or excessively risky behavior may be someone we know, perhaps even closely, and in that case, confronting the person may risk damaging the friendship. In my decades of practice as a psychologist, I’ve found that one can say just about anything to another person if the intention behind doing so is caring. When we genuinely care, the recipient can sense it, and although they may not heed our warnings, they may appreciate them.

The irony behind the accident that claimed the lives of my neighbor and his daughter was that the pilot reportedly was on his way to another airport to take an instrument lesson. There’s no way to know whether anything anyone could have said to him might have changed his decision not to wait out the morning fog. As I mentioned, I wasn’t there and imagine I, too, would have remained silent. Perhaps that’s why my intention is to speak up now whenever I can.

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