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Why pilots take to the skies, despite the risks | Commentary

Preparation, knowledge, and an appreciation of one's own limitations remain key factors in any successful flight.

Phillies great Roy Halladay died in a small plane crash in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida on Nov. 7.
Phillies great Roy Halladay died in a small plane crash in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida on Nov. 7.Read moreMatt Slocum / Associated Press

As a pilot and an avid Philadelphia sports fan, I — like many across America — mourned the recent flying accident and death of pitching ace Roy Halladay. After such events, friends often ask why I fly. Here is at least a partial answer to why I love being a pilot.

As a student pilot, fresh out of high school, I initially was drawn to flying because of the oft-mentioned freedom and the feeling of leaving your terrestrial troubles behind. If nothing else, being forced to land your first solo in a crosswind is a pretty effective way to forget about whatever minutia is causing you stress back on terra firma.

As my competency in the air improved and I ultimately joined the Air Force, I started to enjoy being in control of the machine. It is a tremendous feeling to successfully skirt severe weather and suddenly find yourself staring ahead at clear skies, or to safely deliver your cargo and passengers into a dangerous airfield, knowing that a "debrief beer" or two with your crew is in the near future.

The feeling of control has never been, and never will be, synonymous with complacency. There is a quote that encapsulates the reason I fly now, and reflects what has become a deep-rooted sense of dedication and humility: "Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity, or neglect."

A related aspect of flying that has great appeal for me is the constant need to look ahead. There is always something that will require a pilot's attention until the flight plan is closed and he or she is heading home. I have learned not to neglect a flight simply because I have flown the same route 50 times or my destination airfield presents a low threat. The skies over Dayton can be as dangerous as the skies over Afghanistan.

Try not to snicker, but flying has on multiple occasions inspired my faith in humanity. The first time I had to declare an emergency, anyone within earshot was ready to help. Air traffic control was prepared to clear any aircraft remotely in our way in the event we needed a beeline to the nearest runway. Other aircraft were ready to relay radio transmissions if necessary. And first responders will be waiting at the runway with a few minutes' notice. When a pilot is in trouble, political leanings and cultural norms take a back seat to the urgency of the moment. Humanity is at its best.

While I still fly as a pilot in the Air Force Reserve, I spend most of my time as an aviation attorney. Like the operational aviation world, aviation attorneys move in a close-knit community. As with any practice area, aviation cases can be contentious and occasionally antagonistic. Attorneys are, after all, under a duty to zealously represent their clients. But you would be hard-pressed to find an aviation attorney on either side of the aisle who does not consider the promotion and enhancement of safety as something to which all in the field should strive.

As long as people are subject to gravity and have a desire to get places quickly, danger will never be eliminated from aviation. Every pilot accepts, or at least should realize, that there is risk each time the canopy or door shuts and the engines start spinning. No truer aviation maxim has been spoken than "fate is the hunter." But I take great comfort in knowing the amount of preparation and skill that goes in to making a flight happen. From the pilots who have trained me, to the engineers who designed my aircraft, and all those who work to further aviation safety, I know the foundation has been well laid.

Lee C. Schmeer is a litigator with Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis.