Angel Flight: Attorney spreads wings for area medical patients

Kelly Burris is an angelwith wings.

For five years, Burris, 43, has been donating her time, plane and fuel for Angel Flight, a nonprofit organization that provides free air transportation to people with specialized medical needs when commercial flights are too expensive or impractical. Young and old patients alike, suffering from a wide variety of medical conditions, including cancer, degenerative eye disorders, lupus and heart disease, often require air transportation that would otherwise be impossible to them without Angel Flight pilots like Burris.

Its a chance to fly, says Burris, a patent attorney in the Ann Arbor office of Brinks, Hofer, Gilson & Lione, a national IP boutique. Once a month, thats my goal. Id like to step it up in the future.

Angel Flights are regional, independent member organizations of the Air Charity Network, for which Burris recently helped raise more than $10,000 by flying in the Air Race Classic, all-women, 2,400-mile race from Bozeman, Mont., to Mansfield, Mass.

As an Angel Flight pilot, Burris primarily flies for the Central and Mid-Atlantic regions.

The Cleveland Clinic is a popular location, she says.

It was not until 2000 that she earned her private pilot license. Her inspiration came while attending a Women in Aviation conference at which 5,000 female pilots showed up.

Theres this camaraderie among women pilots, Burris says. Its hard to explain without experiencing it.

In fact it was at a Women in Aviation meeting that Burris met Judy Benjamin, a coordinator with Angel Flight Central.

She used to live in St. Louis, Benjamin says. Thats when I met her. We miss her. Shes a neat lady, and we appreciate all she does.

Burris bought her plane, a 1962 Beechcraft Debonair, in 2004. The Deb, as she calls her plane, has a cruising speed of 170 mph and a range longer than my bladder.

Shes older than me, so I cant push her too much, says Burris, who flies out of the Oakland/Troy Airport. Some people call it a baby Bonanza. Its just a real good plane. Its easy to fly.

Her fascination with planes was instilled in her as a little girl growing up in Berkley in Oakland County until the age of 13 and then later in Livingston County, where she graduated from Hartland High School in Howell. Her father had served on an aircraft carrier as an air traffic controller, and he passed on the love of aircraft to his daughter and son. He took Burris and her brother to air shows and built models of World War II aircraft with them.

My dad wasnt a pilot, the daughter says, but he exposed us to a lot of things.

Burriss fascination with aircraft led her to seek a bachelors degree in aeronautical engineering at Western Michigan University, where she attended on a softball scholarship. Also while a WMU undergrad student, Burris started hanging out at the airport and began flying in 1984.

In 1988, fresh out of college as an aeronautics engineer, she landed a job at McDonnell Douglas in St. Louis. An added bonus to Burris was that the McDonnell Douglas plant had also made the Phantom fighters she delighted in as a child.

When I was a kid, that was the big, cool jet, she says. My enthusiasm for the plane and the company sealed the offer. They could have offered me minimum wage and I would have taken the job.

Burris spent 11 years with McDonnell Douglas. While there she earned her masters degree in materials engineering by attending night classes at Washington University.

I did quite well, actually, she says of her time at McDonnell Douglas. I hated to leave.

But during her tenure, she experienced the unpleasant ups and downs of defense contracting. In 1991, then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney terminated the Avenger contract, forcing many engineers out of work and triggering litigation between the federal government and McDonnell Douglas, now Boeing, that continues to this day.

I saw a lot of guys walking down the hall with tears in their eyes, she recalls. So I started to go to law school at night. I thought it was a good backup plan.

As an engineer, she had worked with attorneys on patents. She thought it was interesting, so it was only natural that she focused on patent law at St. Louis University Law School. Her last year in her masters degree program was also her first year in law school. Plus she was working full time.

That was a bit challenging, she recalls. I couldnt do it again.

She passed the Missouri bar exam in 2000 on the first try, but was scarred for life by the effort. She worked at a St. Louis firm for a couple of years before moving back to Michigan and joining Harness, Dickey and Pierce, where she became a principal in 2007. Seeking a more comfortable fit, she then went to Brinks, Hofer, Gilson and Lione, where she was made a shareholder in October.

Steven Oberholtzer, shareholder and managing partner of the Ann Arbor office, says Burris is highly regarded in her specialty.

She has many valued clients and were pleased to make her a shareholder in our firm, he says. We regard her as one of the leading women lawyers in intellectual property in southeast Michigan.

Oberholtzer said the firm places a lot of value on pro bono and charity work and that many of the attorneys have contributed money toward Burriss Angel Flights.

For her part, Burris is just as appreciative of her fellow attorneys and shareholders.

Not only do they make it easy, she says, they give you a pat on the back. They even offer to chip in.

But, regardless, Burris would not give up her Angel Flight missions.

If I were in a firm that didnt have such a good support structure, it would be more difficult, she says, but Id still do it. I need flying just like I need oxygen.

By John Minnis

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