Riding in Jay Smith’s plane is like flying an airway to heaven. His new endeavor, Last Wish Flight, provides a novel way to hold cremation memorials for family, friends and even pets in Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie Counties.
Smith, a commercial pilot and former professional baseball pitcher, coordinates a timed fly-by of his Grumman Cheetah aircraft with relatives memorializing the deceased from the ground. As required by the Environmental Protection Agency, he then soars three miles from shore over the Atlantic Ocean to disperse cremated remains using a specially-designed urn and lever system. The ashes will then flow through the plane floor into the sky.
“The ashes get scattered at thousands of feet up, so it’s not going to be in one place,” Smith said. “The whole idea of being scattered by the airplane is symbolic of being set free.”
From Pitching Baseballs to Getting His Wings
Smith, who grew up St. Petersburg, Florida, has been a pilot since the early 1970s, flying mostly for pleasure, he said. During that same era he set pitching records for Florida Southern College that still stand today, won a silver medal in the 1971 Pan American Games, a silver in the 1973 World Games and pitched for the San Diego Padres in the minor leagues franchise for two years before a shoulder injury sidetracked his baseball career. After 20 years in the insurance business he retired and focused on getting his commercial pilot’s license and ground instructor’s certificate.
After his father-in-law, a Vietnam veteran, passed away in 2006 his family members came to an impasse while deciding how to honor his wish to have his ashes scattered at sea. Smith, who wears his father-in-law’s paratrooper wings on a necklace, knew he had something special to offer.
“Nobody wanted to go in a boat in case of motion sickness, so I suggested doing the scattering from the airplane,” Smith said. “The family went to The Breakers resort, where there’s a nice outside area. I have a hand-held radio, so we did a fly-by. I said, ‘okay, here we come’ and everybody had a glass of champagne and we saluted my father-in-law. Everybody said their last goodbyes.”
Last Wish Flight a Unique Memorial Service
Thus, Jay R. Smith Aviation, doing business as ‘Last Wish Flight’ and ‘Set Them Free’ (the name he uses for pet memorial services) was born. Realizing no similar service existed in the area, Smith set out to combine his love of flying with a business that would offer unforgettable memorial celebrations. He obtained FAA authorization for a sightseeing permit allowing him to fly with passengers within 25 miles of the North County Airport in Palm Beach Gardens from Stuart south along the coastline to Boca Raton.
Local laws on scattering cremated remains on land can be hard to determine. In researching whether any rules existed for scattering ashes on the beach, I called The Town of Juno Beach, which referred me to Palm Beach County, which bounced me to the Division of Environmental Health, which suggested I speak to the Division of Environmental Resources Management, where I was instructed to call my municipality. My municipality said I should call the Town of Juno Beach.
Few people like to talk about scattering cremated remains, it seems, and this may be a primary reason why so many keep ashes years after healing from their loss.
“I talk to many people that have ashes of pets or people somewhere in their home, and they don’t know how to, in a dignified way, scatter the ashes,” Smith said. “It’s as if you don’t want to let go, but eventually it needs to be done. When you actually do the farewell ceremony, it really makes for a nice celebration.”
Included in the full fee of $995 is the ceremonial fly-by, radio rental for air-to-ground communication with family and friends and pick up of the ashes. Also included is a copy of a certificate Smith must send to the EPA to notify the agency of the latitude and longitude of the scattering locale. Additional services include a photo DVD of the deceased and coordination of the restaurant facility or catering.
Smith also provides an optional solo flight with no ceremony for $450 with EPA certificate included. His policy is to disperse ashes for only one customer per flight, and to use a separate urn for pet ash scatterings. Ashes are dispersed completely and the urn is cleaned after each flight, Smith said.
Co-Pilots Can Fly Along to Scatter Ashes
One person can fly along with Smith for the dispersal of the ashes for an additional $100. The journey usually takes a little over an hour and the passenger can opt to pull the lever releasing the remains of the deceased person or pet.
Smith took me on a short flight to experience what a customer could expect if they flew along in the Cheetah. After meeting in the lobby of the North County Airport, a small general aviation airfield, we climbed into the cockpit by stepping on a pedal and walking over the wing, which felt similar to stepping into a large SUV. He gave me a headset through which we could communicate and receive instructions.
After a short drive with the plane canopy open Smith checked his instrument panel and explained each mechanism. He closed the canopy, lifted off smoothly and within minutes we were gliding up the coastline at 500 feet and 150 mph. Smith pointed out familiar landmarks like the Jupiter Lighthouse and Singer Island and there was a sense of calm and splendor. Behind the seats the urn system attaches to the floor so the urn’s lever can be pulled easily by pilot or passenger to release ashes. Heading back to the airport Smith idled the engine and glided effortlessly into landing.
“Part of the experience is the beauty of the flight. It’s such a wonderful memory since they’re like the co-pilot,” Smith said. “Not only are they getting closure but they’re doing something they’ve probably never done in their life. You want to make it a pleasant experience. It’s already tough enough as it is.”
Jay R. Smith Interview
Last Wish Flight
Florida Southern College