The landing gear is in order, the engine looks good and the weather is clear.
The depositions are ready, the witnesses have been subpoenaed and the trial is set.
The precision of a pilot’s preflight checklist is really no different from a thorough attorney’s research. As in most things, you’re only as good as your preparation.
“There’s no room for error in flying,” says Kenan Loomis, an attorney at Smith Moore, who owns a twinengine six-seater called a Beechcraft Baron. “Your preflight has to be very thorough. The same goes for law. You have to know your area of the law and you have to know your cases thoroughly.”
Once the plane is in the air and the trial under way, the similarities stop. A plane is, after all, a machine made up of predictable parts. A trial is made up of human beings. Nothing predictable there.
“You never know what a judge or witness will do,” says Jay Bennett of Alston Bird. He owns two planes — a Bonanza A36 and a Piper Archer II. He’s had the latter for more than 20 years and says it fits like an old shoe. “But I know that if I reduce manifold pressure to 20 inches and reduce prop RPM to 2300, I will be flying at 145 knots when straight and level on approach. … No guessing or estimating. It works the same way every time.
“Practicing law is more an art than a precision skill,” he adds.
Pitts Carr, whose firm, Carr Tabb Pope and Freeman, owns a Cessna 421, maintains that while certain lawyers make good pilots, certain pilots make very bad lawyers.
“On the plaintiff side of the bar,” he says, “there’s a riverboat-gambler mentality that is completely inconsistent with flying an aircraft. There are daring things you do in litigation to make a point that you wouldn’t want to transfer into a plane. Anyone that thinks they’re a hot dog, or who has something to prove, has no place in a cockpit.”
Lee Davis, a construction lawyer with Griffin Cochrane & Marshall who has also worked as a flight instructor, learned to fly planes on a dirt strip in a cornfield at his father’s farm. “[My dad] later leased it out to a fellow who became a flight instructor after he lost his job as a violinist in vaudeville when the talkies came out,” Davis says, “and this fellow taught me to fly in vintage Piper Cubs.”
As for Bennett — whose son’s name is Sky — he has wanted to fly since he can remember. “As a kid I made and flew model airplanes and built a jet engine,” he says. “In college [at the University of North Carolina] at Chapel Hill, I made a gyrocopter but was afraid to fly it.” So he went to the ROTC and said he wanted to be a pilot, but his eyesight didn’t pass muster. That didn’t stop him. He rode his motorcycle out to the airport to try his luck there. The lessons would cost $600. “At that time in my life,” he says, “they might as well have said $6 million.”
But that didn’t stop him either. After Harvard Law, Bennett went to work in Atlanta. One Sunday afternoon he was planning a short court hearing in Sylvester. His options were bleak: He could drive four hours each way or fly commercially to Tallahassee, where he’d have to rent a car.
“Instead,” he says, “I called [Peachtree DeKalb Airport] and said I wanted flying lessons and my first lesson would be the next morning to Sylvester.”
And once you get in the cockpit, pilots attest, you don’t want to get out. “You get the bug,” says Loomis. “You just want to fly, fly, fly.”
For many lawyers the flying is also practical. Carr’s Cessna is in use pretty much every week — for casework. “A lot of the places where we’re involved there’s no commercial service,” he says. “You’d spend all day getting to court and all day getting back.”
Loomis, who does half of his flying for his firm, says that when he beats commercial airlines door-to-door in the Southeast, the client benefits. “If I have to spend three hours going through Hartsfield,” he says, “that’s not good for the client.”
On good days these lawyers can get double the rush. “The exhilaration of victory in a case,” says Davis, “and the exhilaration of aerobatics in a stunt plane or a high-speed fly-by 50 feet off the deck are not to be missed.”
The pilot logs hours, the client saves money, everybody wins. It’s a passion made practical — with obvious bonuses: “The plane’s a means to come home when I’m done working,” says Carr, “which is where I want to be when the sun goes down.”
There are risks to flying, of course, but most pilots will tell you they’ve been overblown. “Everybody talks about the harrowing incidents,” Loomis says, “because you’d never want to hear about the calm two hours I flew on Sunday evening.”
But every pilot does have a tale to tell. No matter how thorough the preflight check, something can go wrong.
“I was in a plane that was loaded with people and documents,” says Carr. “And just as I came over the runway, I encountered severe wind sheer and the plane dropped 15 feet instantaneously. … I did everything by the book — full power, flaps up, level flight — but I couldn’t build any air speed. There was a hangar at the end of the runway … and we grazed just two feet over that thing.”
Lee Davis can match that, no problem.
Several years ago, as Davis and a student were conducting a training flight, the airplane’s sole engine quit. Keeping his cool, Davis, whose contact lens had just popped out, announced that he would like to assume control to “demonstrate emergency landing procedures.” The student, none the wiser, sat back to enjoy the ride while Davis radioed Peachtree DeKalb to let them know his plane was crippled. The tower agreed to hold all other traffic.
“Never mind,” Davis said. “It looks like the only runway we’re going to make is GA 400.”
And that’s exactly where they ended up, barely clearing power lines, swooping low over traffic and rolling to a stop under the Abernathy Road Bridge. As Davis looked around for his contact lens, a police car approached. The student hopped out. “What’s the problem, officer?” he asked. “We were only doing 60 knots.”
The pilots are trained to be unflappable. They identify the problem — in Carr’s case, a flap switch had failed; in Davis’, the whole engine — and move on.
“Life is uncertain,” Carr says. “One of my favorite quotes is ‘The fear of dying can keep you from living, but it can’t keep you from dying.’”
Besides, it’s not as if pilots have a choice. Once they’ve flown, they’re drawn to the air like birds.
“I’m looking out my window right now,” Loomis says, “at this gorgeous, clear day — and I’m definitely thinking about what it would be like to take my plane up.”