Aerial Ash Scattering: The Final Journey with Aerial Work Aviation

Aerial Work aviation is not just about conducting aerial mapping & surveys, crop dusting, and many other life-giving utility tasks but also about bringing comfort to family and friends when a loved one passes away. A small but essential sector of Aerial Work aviation does just that – Aerial Ash Scattering. To better understand this unique sector, Patrick Ryan will "lay to rest" the essential elements of Aerial Ash Scattering and how this sector professionally helps free the soul.

Patrick Ryan  |  03rd November 2022
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    Patrick Ryan
    Patrick Ryan

    Patrick Ryan brings over 30 years of experience as a Senior Consultant helping government and business...

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    skydivers scattering ashes

    As much as you might not want to think about it, there will be a time when a family member, friend, or even a family pet passes away. When this happens, some people elect to be cremated and have their ashes scattered in a place that brings comfort to everyone involved. 

    Throughout civilized history, the belief in "a journey of the departed" has played a big part in mourning a loved one. This is evident in ancient Egypt's "Journey on the River Styx" to Nordic "Viking Funeral Pyre Ships." The general idea can be found repeatedly across many civilizations to this day. 

    Today, many cultures see the journey as a spiritual event vs. a physical occasion like the ancient Egyptians, i.e., filling the burial chamber with food and treasures and, at times, enslaved people to accompany the body to the afterlife. However, nowadays, the focus is on the individual spiritual representation of a journey or, better yet, as the rock band Led Zeppelin would refer to it, taking the "Stairway to Heaven." 

    Given our worldwide shared cultural history of the journey into the afterlife, it is not surprising this idea is reasserting itself again in the form of ash scattering ceremonies. From scattering cremation ash by air, sea, or land, the act of scattering ash has its roots in need to help send beloved onto their next journey and from their favorite place on earth. 

    On this ceremony's "Air" side, the aerial ash scattering sector provides everything from planning, logistics, and, most importantly, the final journey. So, what is this unique sector, and what do these Aerial Work aviators do? 

    Aerial Ash Scattering 

    Beyond the term, aerial ash scattering consists of (and, outside of a private pilot attempting this operation as a one-off experience) professional individuals and small businesses that conduct flight operations to help families to memorialize and honor their loved ones when they pass away.

     Specifically, aerial ash scattering has a distinct purpose of providing an experience in the life cycle, i.e., be it the family or an individual's last wishes. In conjunction with mortuaries or funeral service providers, the aerial ash scattering sector only supports the "final resting place" of an individual. 

    All things considered, professional aerial ash scattering operators are focused on providing a wanted service that "puts to rest" a deceased being and provides the loved ones the excellent experience of remembering and saying goodbye. Outside of DIY private pilots, professional aerial ash scatters accomplish this task with an impressive array of aircraft, specialized kits, and memorable services that enhance the experience. 

    Attention Pilots! - Caution, Warning & Notes

    Even though the idea of scattering or jettisoning ashes from an aircraft seems simple, IT'S NOT!


    The ashes of a cremated human or any living being have a specific consistency. This consistency of cremated remains is very clinging and intrusive. If you encounter such situations, take preventive caution against such material in and around your aircraft.

    There are many stories of private pilots with no experience in such an endeavor who tried to scatter the ashes of a family member or friend. In many cases, these flights ended with disastrous or embarrassing results due to the basics of aerodynamics, i.e., Uncle John's ashes ended up in the cockpit and all over the aircraft's surface. In the end, Uncle John's "journey" ended in a vacuum cleaner or a cleaning rag rather than dancing with the wind.

    Besides the potential of physical "blowback" from your client or friend, many other earthly details can turn a simple and memorable event into a bad story. The individuals and businesses that conduct professional aerial ash scattering services ensure that all aspects of scattering are managed correctly to ensure the event is conducted properly and gracefully. Some of these details are reviewing legal requirements, obtaining permission from owners if scattering over private property, and many more important requirements. 

    Types of Aerial Ash Scattering Services

     Even though you might think aerial ash scattering services consist of just a pilot flying a Cessna 172 and tossing ash, it actually consists of many types of special professional efforts that are not associated with just releasing ashes, i.e., by both manned and unmanned aircraft service providers. Some of the specific or unique services you'll see advertised or provided by the Aerial Ash Scattering sector are:

    Basic Ash Scattering – This service consists of an unwitnessed scattering by the pilot, i.e., the pilot performs the ash scattering discretely and individually without family or friends accompanying. In general, most basic ash scattering services Include: 

    • Scattering at a specific location, i.e., over a favorite place, national park, etc. 

    • Filing of required paperwork. 

    • Coordinating a date and time of scattering to allow loved ones to come and watch the take-off. 

    • Providing a digital certificate of the scattering showing date, time, attitude, longitude, altitude, and time the scattering took place.

    Witnessed Ash Scattering – This event is probably one of the most popular services. This event allows loved ones to witness the scattering from the ground. The witnessed ash scattering service is arranged at a date and time of the loved ones choosing and allows an unlimited number of attendees to gather at the location where the ash scattering will occur.

    Private Ash Scattering – Private ash scattering or flyalong services involves loved ones directly participating in the aerial ash scattering. Depending on the type and seating of an aircraft, family members, friends, or clergy can personally say goodbye at the very moment and place of release.  

    Special Ash Scattering – Many aerial ash scattering providers offer specialized services along with basic, witnessed, and private ash scattering services. Two of the most popular are duel scattering and pet scattering. Duel scattering comprises scattering more than one person over the exact location and at the same time. This service is common to families who want to scatter their parents together. Regarding other family members, many aerial ash scattering providers will even release a beloved pet's ashes over a special dog beach or favorite spot. In some unique cases, a cherished pet and family member's ashes are released together in a duel scattering service. 

    Airborne Photographs and Video Services – Along with the scattering, many aerial ash scattering businesses offer professionally created videos or photographs of their loved ones scattering. Sometimes, these videos and photographs are personalized with their loved one's favorite music and other memorable information. Both means are delivered in a digital format that can be downloaded to a desktop or laptop and shareable with other friends and family.

    The Aircraft of Aerial Ash Scattering 

    The type of aircraft and the distinctive dispensing tools used in aerial ash scattering vary from manned and unmanned aircraft. However, the prominent aircraft used today for aerial ash scattering operations are singleengine fixed-wing airplanes. Though Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) are relatively new to aerial ash scattering, they are expanding in use, especially in providing a unique alternative to saying goodbye.

    Manned Aircraft 

    When it comes to manned aircraft, almost every type of aircraft has been used over the decades to scatter the remains of a loved one. However, today the leading platforms used in professional aerial ash scattering operations are:

    Single/Twin-Engine Aircraft – As mentioned before, light to medium fixed-wing aircraft dominate the sector. For economical and practical reasons, light fixed-wing aircraft are relatively cheap to purchase and maintain while technically easy to modify for any small or straightforward ash-scattering dispensing system.

    Vintage Aircraft – Popular with military veterans and aviation enthusiasts, ashes are flown and dispensed from classic aircraft like a Supermarine Spitfire, Piper Grasshopper, North American B-25 Mitchell, and many other historic planes. Some of these services also include family members flying along within the vintage aircraft or from another vintage aircraft.  

    Helicopter – Like fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters provide the same services but from a different flying approach. Even though helicopters have a different aerodynamics perspective, the processes of ensuring the ashes leave the aircraft and deploy away from any critical components of the "bird" is the same. In this case, safeguarding the helicopter's tail rotor or engine air inlets.

    Hot Air Balloon – For families looking for a slower and quieter means of spreading the ashes of their loved ones, hot air balloons provide the experience and the lifting capability to support sizeable private ash scattering services. Many hot air balloon providers can accommodate up to 15 people for such an event.

    Alternative Platforms – Outside of the above-highlighted platforms, a small number of aerial ash scattering businesses use other aircraft or means to scatter ashes into the air, i.e., an alternative and more fitting for the family and the wishes of the loved one. Some of these alternative aircraft are a glider, hang-glider, para-glider, and even by skydiver.

    Unmanned Aerial Vehicles 

    Today, professional UAV aerial ash scattering firms with heavy-lift and light-lift drone aircraft provide the same professional type of services as manned aircraft providers, minus the "fly along" or private ash scattering service. Additionally, they provide a localized or close-up ceremony that gives witnesses a unique perspective compared to traditional manned aerial ash scattering services. Plus, in many ways, they provide a quieter event, are far more cost-effective than traditional funerals, and offer an environmentally friendly alternative. 

    Undoubtedly, UAV Aerial Work aircraft will expand in aerial ash scattering service. Along with this, you'll see aerial ash scattering conducted by unique or different types of unmanned platforms. For example, one company in the United States releases the cremated remains of a beloved family member into near space, 90,000 feet high, using an unmanned high-altitude balloon. This scattering approach results in the remains falling back down to earth during the course of several months. 

    The Final Goodbye 

    At the end of the day or life, aerial ash scattering plays an integral part in many societies. Ash scattering holds a very particular space in helping family, friends, and pets move on in a unique way. Aerial ash scattering is part of this endeavor but with an eye on leveraging the power of flight to support the grieving process. To accomplish this, the professional aerial ash scattering sector provides, with dignity, everything from planning, logistics, and, most notably, the final journey to make a difference for loved ones and friends.

    Even though the aerial ash scattering sector is just one small part of a sizable global funeral industry, its services can be hugely helpful. Even though some elect to have a non-experienced aerial ash-scattering pilot friend or family member release their loved one's ashes, the art & science of releasing ashes from an aircraft cannot be understated. 

    In the future, both manned and unmanned aircraft of all types, with their specialized capabilities, will continue to be used in saying goodbye in the right place and at the right time. Because of the unique capabilities aircraft bring to the world, the aerial ash scattering sector will continue to provide a unique but wanted service.

    So, the next time you're hiking outdoors and notice a large group of people gathered together looking into the sky, don't be surprised to see a manned or unmanned aircraft flying nearby and releasing a small ash cloud. When you see this, think of the dedicated professional aviators who help others in a moment of grief. In other words, the aerial ash scattering service sector is genuinely part of the "Final Journey." 

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