How NOT To Scatter Ashes From a Hang Glider
In November, 2009, over the Thanksgiving weekend, tragedy struck the OhioFliers hang gliding and paragliding club. One of our members, Chris, was killed when the glider he was piloting stalled as he was taking off from ramp built on a cliff in the mountains of Tennessee. Chris was in his 60’s, and his accident sobered me greatly. I had flown from that very site a year earlier, with Chris, and I could vividly picture what happened in my mind’s eye.
The following summer Chris’ widow suggested we honor Chris, over Memorial Day weekend, in a little memorial service at our flying field in central Ohio. Chris had been cremated, and she had carefully placed his ashes, mixed with glitter, in some Ziploc baggies that she distributed to each of us. She explained that Chris would have wanted his ashes scattered over the flying field where he had created so many good memories. We were to get aloft, open the baggie, and scatter his ashes, hopefully within her view. The glitter should make it visible as it, mingled with the ashes, reflected in the sunlight.
Because central Ohio is flat, we get aloft by towing, either behind a powered ultralight aircraft, or by using a ground-based winch. The pilot and his glider situate themselves on a rolling dolly which, once the tow commences, rolls away as they become airborne. You can watch a video of one of my towing flights here. The hope is that we are able to stay aloft by finding thermals, or columns of warm, rising air, and circling in them as they rise. On that particular day, most pilots, including myself, did have nice extended flights, and all pilots, except me, remembered to release Chris’ ashes over the green fields of the Ohio countryside. By the time I landed, I had forgotten that Chris’ ashes were still zipped up in my flying harness.
Several weeks later, it dawned on me that Chris was in my basement, still safely tucked into my harness. I mentioned it to my wife who was not comfortable with the thought of his remains remaining in our house. She asked me, respectfully, to place Chris’ ashes somewhere safe, outside, where they would stay until I went flying again and could honor the wishes of Chris’ widow. I found a perfect temporary home for Chris inside a small bubble trailer which I kept out back by a storage building. He stayed there until November. I’m ashamed to say that I went flying a couple times during the interim and forgot about the unfulfilled rite I needed to perform…until that day in November.
I had purchased a new harness, and I was anxious to test it out. This time I launched using the ground-based winch which could only propel me to 1000 feet or so above the ground (instead of the 2500 feet altitude we typically achieved behind an ultralight tow plane). Also, being a cool, cloudy day, I did not expect to gain altitude after the tow release. I’d shoot multiple landings in order to break in my new harness, and I’d turn Chris’ ashes loose once becoming comfortable towing and landing in the harness.
After four successful launches and landings I decided it was time. I said a little prayer in honor of Chris, and signaled to initiate the tow. At an altitude of just over 1000 feet, I released from the tow line, got squared away, and reached into the pocket where Chris was waiting. But I did not realize how difficult it was to take both hands off the control bar while trying to unzip the baggie off to my side as we flew through the air at about 25 miles per hour. I fumbled around for a bit as the glider started to veer off to the left and nose down. I grabbed the control bar, straightened up and tried again, this time with the baggie in front of me so I could see what I was doing. Once the bag opened, the wind filled it and Chris’ ashes began wafting out of the bag and into my face. I grabbed the baggie in one hand, got control of the glider, and tried again. Eventually I was able to completely empty the baggie, and Chris was finally reunited with the rest of his remains where he no longer had to “rest in pieces,” so to speak.
Lest you think I was/am bordering on disrespect, let me assure you this comedy of errors happened with the best of intentions. Chris and I were friends, and I wanted to show honor to both him and his grieving wife. I contacted her and explained what I had done, and she was amused and grateful, saying that “Chris would have gotten a big kick out of your story.” Perhaps this is a story that demonstrates ceremonies involving human remains are better left in the hands of professionals. Or you might say I haven’t yet “urned” my airborne scatterer’s wings.