Air Bud

Michael Louis Kelly pilots pups to safety

Published in 2018 Southern California Super Lawyers — February 2018

Michael Louis Kelly has been a lawyer since 1978, but it wasn’t until a year later, when he began representing parties in aviation crashes, that he discovered his primary passion: flight.

“I became interested in airplanes and aeronautics, and the engineering aspect of how planes fly—and what makes them stop flying,” the El Segundo attorney says. “The more I hung around with pilots and flew in airplanes with them, the more I wanted to do it myself. It’s kind of a bug that, once it bites you, it’s all over.”

In 1991, Kelly received his basic pilot’s license. Three years ago, he received his airline transport pilot rating—the highest civilian rating available. 

Kelly currently has a Beechcraft Premier jet, and uses it approximately once per week for business. “It’s very convenient, and helps us litigate around the state,” he says, noting that when using a traditional airline, a flight to San Francisco can take up to six hours from door to door. “I can drive to the airport, hop in my own plane and be there in 45 minutes.” 

He also uses it once a week for his own amusement. “If I go out and play golf, I’m still thinking about trial,” he says. “Airplanes are just different for me: Once I start the engines, I don’t think about anything but the task at hand. ... It’s an amazing escape.” 

Though Kelly currently keeps his jet at Van Nuys, he used to park at Santa Monica Airport, where he was introduced to a volunteer organization that flies dogs in need to safety: Wings of Rescue. Kelly did his first flight with the program in 2012, and has been doing two or three trips each year since.

Wings of Rescue operates in Los Angeles and Orange counties. Local shelters select dogs, who are cleaned up, spayed, and, if necessary, given meds. Then volunteers put the dogs in crates and onto planes. They’re flown across the U.S., where they’ll be taken in by new families. 

“It’s really rewarding to see these dogs come out of a place where they have hours to live,” Kelly says, “and be transported to a place where they’re going to have people taking care of them and loving them.”

He estimates 50 pilots are involved, and all donate their time, planes and fuel. 

“There’s a lot of camaraderie in the pilots that fly for this group,” he says. “There’s a lot of energy when we have a run.”

Kelly owns two dogs himself—a Chihuahua named Beagle and a Yorkshire Terrier named Nigel. Though his plane can hold 50 to 60 dogs, one of his favorite rescues involved just 39 of them. “They were all adopted already by families,” he says. “So when we landed [in Idaho], there were 39 families all waiting for their dogs. It was pretty amazing: You’d take a dog off the plane, call its name, and a family ran up and took it out of the cage.”

If you’re wondering, yes, sometimes it’s tough to get the dogs to board the plane, or to stay in their crates. “They’re scared to death,” Kelly says. “But once you start the engines and take off, the vibration of the airplane kind of puts them to sleep.”

But, he adds, once the plane lands, they all want to exit right away. “Not unlike human beings, I guess,” he says.

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