Attorney merges law with love of aviation

 By Brian Cox

Legal News
The 1970 Karmann Ghia convertible jounces down Highland Road in Waterford Township on a short jaunt to Oakland County International Airport where attorney Steve Chait keeps his high-performance single-engine airplane.
“I like to feel the road,” he calls above the wind.

It’s a sentiment similar to what he loves about piloting a plane: the feel of it.

“I like flying,” he says simply. “Before I even experienced it, I was dreaming about it. It’s almost a religious thing.”

It’s a good bet that Chait is the only attorney in the state who can look out his office window and see the hangar where his Beechcraft Debonair is waiting for him to take her up for a spin.

Chait had wanted to fly since he was a kid growing up in Oak Park. His mother wasn’t keen on the idea, but he took classes at Detroit City Airport and got his private pilot license at the age of 17, the youngest you could be to qualify. At 18, he’d earned his commercial and flight instructor certificates. He worked in aviation for 10 years before deciding there was too much sitting around while not flying and too much taking orders from somebody else.

“It was a lot of work and a lot of struggle to get where I was and then I found I didn’t like it,” he says of being a commercial pilot.

So he turned to his backup plan. Law school.

After earning his J.D. at Detroit College of Law, he joined the law firm of Sullivan Ward where for 15 years he melded his legal education with his experience as a pilot in the practice of aviation law.

It was the best of both worlds.

“At the courthouse, they think I’m just a dumb pilot and at the airport they think I’m just a dumb lawyer,” says Chait, “but I’ve gotten to do things as a lawyer that I’d never have gotten to do if I was just a pilot.” 

He’s flown with Bob Lutz in the auto executive’s L-39 Albatross military jet and with the chief test pilot for Piper Aircraft. He’s met Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to travel faster than the speed of sound, and had the chance to be a thorn in the side of Lee Iacocca, stubbornly pressing to depose the Chrysler chief in a case involving his personal company plane. He’s even had a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. 

There are around 150 members of the State Bar of Michigan Aviation Law Section, but there are probably no more than 50 attorneys in the country who do what Chait does. He is a founding member of the Aviation Law Section and has been elected its chairman three times.

“There probably aren’t many major aviation accident cases over the past 30 years in the U.S. that I haven’t been involved in,” says Chait, who opened his own firm in 1996.

He was involved in the case of Northwest Flight 255 in 1987, which crashed on takeoff at Detroit Metro, killing all six crewmembers and 148 passengers, becoming at the time the second-deadliest aviation accident in U.S. history. Ten years later, he was appointed to the plaintiff’s committee in the accident of Comair Flight 3272, in which 26 passengers and three crewmembers were killed when the plane crashed nose-down while approaching Detroit Metro for landing.

He also represents pilots when they run afoul of the Federal Aviation Administration and companies that operate business jets and commercial planes, handling aviation contracts and purchase agreements for them.

Chait, who flies about 50 hours a year, says he can’t imagine not owning an airplane. It’s almost as if the Beechcraft Debonair were a member of his family. In fact, if you ask him how long he’s owned the plane, he’ll say one year less than he and his wife Dianne have had their son, Michael, who is 28.

He is full of stories about his experiences in the air. He once helped save 79 cats and dogs and one bird that were trapped in a burning kennel when he flew over a veterinarian hospital, spotted smoke and radioed in the fire. He received a community service award for that one.

This is his “trouble” story. When he was a young flight instructor at the City Airport in 1972, he took a student and the student’s girlfriend out in a 4-seat Cessna, heading south toward Belle Isle. They were up about 3,000 feet and a half-mile off the shore cruising up the coastline when the oil gauge dropped to zero. That wasn’t good, but Chait wasn’t overly concerned until soon after the oil temperature gauge started climbing.

“This is for real,” he thought.

The flight student’s girlfriend tapped Chait on the shoulder and asked, “Are we going to be okay?” He tried to assure her they would be fine, but must not have succeeded because not a minute later, she tapped him on the shoulder again and asked, “Are you sure we’re going to be okay?”

He managed to get the plane over Selfridge Air National Guard Base before the propeller seized and he was able to execute a glide landing. They climbed out of the plane to find themselves surrounded by alert soldiers.

Here’s the kicker, though: Fifteen or so years later, Chait was dictating a mediation summary about another plane engine failing over the water and it turned out the court reporter was the girl in the Cessna with him that day.

He enjoys telling that one.
It is evident from first glance that aviation law is Chait’s specialty. His office is adorned with oil paintings by renowned aviation artist Rick Herter, including an enormous print titled “Showdown over the Bekaa,” which dramatically depicts the 1982 air battle over the Bekaa Valley between Israel and Syria. The Israeli Air Force shot down 82 Syrian aircraft in two hours without losing a single plane. The original work hangs in the Israeli Defense World Headquarters.

On another wall, hangs Herter’s “First Pass, Defenders Over Washington,” which memorializes the first F-16 scrambled to fly over a flame-engulfed Pentagon just four minutes after it was attacked on September 11. The original painting hangs
in the Pentagon.

 The love of flying that Chait felt as a kid hasn’t flagged over the years. Some afternoons, he’ll have his lunch on the tarmac outside his hangar and spend the time watching planes come and go.

The only thing better is being in the air himself.
These stories first ran in the Fall 2013 
edition of MOTION Magazine.