Bronze Star recipient Clinton T. Speegle is using his Iraq War aviation expertise to help institutions write drone policy
Super Lawyers online-exclusive
By Erik Lundegaard on September 14, 2017
The following is from an interview with Mr. Speegle last summer. It has been edited and condensed.
I don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day anymore. My wife says it’s just because I don’t want to celebrate Valentine’s Day.
I was in a town called Taji, north of Baghdad, and was platoon leader of an attack helicopter platoon. We were one of the units tasked with providing a mission called 24 Hours Eyes Over Baghdad. Twenty-four hours a day, two AH-64D Apaches circled Baghdad. Things went bad—Americans got in a fire fight, hit an IED, a vehicle-borne IED goes into a mosque, you name it—we get the call, we go flying as fast as we can. Sometimes our presence alone shut things down. Our intelligence officers once raided a house and found an email [from the insurgents]: “Do not shoot the helicopter that looks like a wasp. They will shoot back.”
We call it the Valentine’s Day Massacre of 2006. On that particular night, we were escorting Saddam to trial. They played a shell game with Saddam. The Black Hawks would pick him up, they’d move him to one place, they’d put him on a bus, they’d take the bus to another place, pick him up in the helicopters. You’d never know if he was on a bus or on a helicopter. Frankly, I didn’t even know where he was.
There was an old nuclear power plant to the southeast of town that the Israelis had bombed that I was just fascinated with. I would always go fly around it. We’d take a couple laps around the nuke plant and then we’d start heading back toward Baghdad International along the south side of the city. That’s farmland down there. It happens also to be where the old Iraqi Air Defense Artillery School was located.
So we’re flying along and the night sky lights up with tracers. After the initial, “Oh my god, what’s happening?” we were caught in a very well-thought-out aerial ambush. They had three machine guns set up that were shooting at us, and then they had some RPGs and rockets they were shooting at us. Things are whizzing past and it’s lightning speed. I break to the right, my wingman breaks to the left, we can’t see each other at all. I’ve got one of the guys in sight that is shooting at us. I pull the trigger. They’re 30-millimeter high-explosive bullets. As they’re going down range, I see my wingman come flying in front. It’s the most sickening feeling in the world: You’ve got 10 bullets going down range that are basically hand grenades and your wingman is about to fly right into him. They miraculously missed him. At that point, we were so disheveled we decided to bug out as fast as we could.
Two nights later, they tried again. There were some Black Hawks transitioning through the area. My sister platoon, who had the mission that night, went up to like 8,000 feet and watched the Black Hawks transition, and these [insurgents] tried to shoot the Black Hawks. My guys came sweeping in and shot them up. Justice was served, but I ended up taking a helicopter back that was full of bullet holes. It looked like Swiss cheese. There were holes through the cockpit that I still don’t know how [the bullets] didn’t hit me.
From there, I came back to Fort Hood and moved to a position on division staff. I was the subject matter expert [for] attack helicopters. That’s also where I got started working with drones. I ended up writing the 4th Infantry Division standard operating procedure for their drones from basically scratch.
When you make major, it pretty well means that you’re done flying. I did not want to be a staff officer; that is not my mentality. I saw that the way you can be on the frontlines of something, even though it’s different, is to be a lawyer. When the Army said no [to JAG Corps], I thought about transferring to other services, but I’m too ingrained in the Army. Couldn’t do that. So I started applying to law schools. I said, “I’m just going to go on my own.”
My aviation practice is bigger than drones. I do crashes. I do FAA/TSA issues at the airport or for pilots. I do contract disputes between hangars and airport authorities. If it has anything to do with airplanes, I’m involved in it.
The other side of my practice is NCAA compliance. I deal with schools, institutions that have NCAA problems. I was traveling with one of my clients—general counsel at an institution—and we were sitting in an airport and got to talking about aviation issues. He said, “We’ve got a drone policy that we have to write at our institution. Can you help us with that?” The answer was, “Absolutely.” I hope that it becomes a service I can provide to all institutions.
I’m sure you’re familiar with Amazon exploring using drones to deliver books to your house? That technology is being tested on college campuses. There’s technology out there that tests delivering food on campuses. Those things make me nervous, very nervous. Not only do you have a 20-pound drone flying over campus, now you’ve got a 20-pound drone with textbooks.
You can always make something more restrictive than the FAA regulations, and that’s generally what we’re trying to do. I don’t want to be in a reactive situation where we are constantly going, “Okay, a student did this yesterday on campus. We need to change our policy.” We have to make it broad enough so that it covers all contingencies but also allows for creative uses.
The first thing is, can we even do it on your campus? I have one college I talk to that was all excited about writing their drone policy, [but] the campus was maybe a half mile from the end of a major runway. I said, “I can’t do anything for you. The FAA says you can’t fly a drone period on your campus.”
Then if we can do it, where do we not want these things flown? I suggest linear things: “You can fly your drone north of University Boulevard from Oak Street to Pine Street.” Or: “You can fly your drone anywhere on campus, provided it’s not between the hours of 9:00 and 3:00.” I prefer linear. I think as we get more and more ways to use drones on campuses, it’s going to become more important to create corridors and basically create your own little airspace system.
Who can we get to approve it? What insurance do you want to require? I recommend a minimum of a half-million dollars per occurrence and $2 million aggregate and you must name the institution as an additional insurer. Other things that I think are important: “Must yield right of way to manned aircraft. No careless or reckless operations, no carriage of hazardous materials. Use cannot violate state, federal or local laws. Institutional regulations and policies cannot unlawfully interfere or violate anyone’s individual constitutional rights, including but not limited to the First and Fourth Amendments. Don’t fly after you use drugs or alcohol.”
There are a lot of veterans that do this work. I’ve got a couple good buddies here in the Birmingham Bar that are vets. I can usually sense when a guy may have been military. It’s probably 50/50. A lot of times you find out that they weren’t military but their dad was military, so the same types of things have been ingrained in them. I went to a conference in San Diego back in May and it was, “What did you fly?” “Navy.” “What did you fly?” “I was a Marine Cobra pilot.” Of course I told them I was an Apache pilot.
I still fly. I belong to a flying club that owns two Piper Archers. I’ve got an 18-month old at home, and that makes it more difficult, but just to stay proficient I try to fly once a month. We’ll do family Saturday-afternoon things: fly up to Northeast Alabama to see the canyon or fly over to Talladega and look at the race track, fly down to Tuscaloosa to look at the football stadium. We fly down to the beach to see my parents. My son, I think he’s liking it better now. He’s facing forward and looks out and says everything is a bird.
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Clinton T. SpeegleTop rated Aviation & Aerospace lawyer Lightfoot, Franklin & White LLC Birmingham, AL
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