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An Angel of Another Kind

You hear a lot of about transportation around Detroit. People gush over bike trails. On the down side, there are the financial woes of our automotive manufacturers. Or consider the barrels of ink that have been spent on stories about a possible light-rail system.

Then there's the kind of transportation Kelly Burris uses. This engineer turned attorney is what some might call “an unsung hero.” So I'm going to do a little singing on her behalf.

Burris has been a pilot since 1984, stemming from her childhood love of all things with wings. These days, she's using her flight time to spread a little bit of good tiding to families in need across the United States.

The Ann Arbor resident is a volunteer pilot for Angel Flight Mid-Atlantic and Angel Flight Central, two divisions of the Air Charity Network. For the past five years, she has gone on dozens of missions, transporting people with medical conditions to doctor's appointments or treatments, carrying medical supplies and transporting military personnel and their families. She does this all on her own dime, supplying the airplane, fuel costs and the best gift of all: her skills and personal time.

Why do it? Why shell out the $500 or more per flight to fly relative strangers around?

“It's good for the soul,” Burris said. “Life's short. I'm not the kind of person who wants to die with a lot of riches or all these professional accomplishments. I want a life of adventure and love. I want to help someone else in their journey, to encourage them to do something they might not be able to otherwise.”

She and “Deb,” the nickname of her 1962 Beechcraft Debonair, have flown across the country, going from Illinois to Ohio to Wisconsin and more. Sometimes, she picks up her nephew and he rides along. He gets the experience, but he also learns how important the flights are to those who may not have other options to get where they need to go.

“Aviation has enriched my life so much; I want others to have that opportunity too,” Burris said.

Speaking of riches, Burris committed to raise $25,000 for Angel Flight. She reached that goal in part through her participation in the Air Race Classic, an all-female aviation race (one famous past participant: Amelia Earhart). She and her co-pilot, Erin A. Recke, defeated 34 other teams on the 2,700-mile journey from Denver to Atlantic, Iowa to win the race. They donated their $5,000 prize to the non-profit organization.

This has been a banner year for Burris. In January, she became a shareholder at the intellectual property law firm, Brinks Hofer Gilson and Lione. She won the Air Race Classic in June. And in September, she received the 2009 Unsung Hero Award from the State Bar of Michigan.

She comes by her flying talent naturally. Burris' father served on U.S. Navy aircraft carrier control towers. He took her to air shows. They made model airplanes. She started flying herself as a student at Western Michigan University, where she was an aeronautical engineering major.

When she graduated, Burris joined aviation giant McDonnell Douglas in St. Louis. She spent the next decade working on advanced design, ballistics research and virtual reality technology. While working on a project that earned her a patent, Burris decided to go back to school and get her law degree. She graduated from St. Louis University in 1999.

Oh, and she also has a Master of Science degree in material science and engineering from Washington University.

After seeing and experiencing so much of the U.S., Burris said she still enjoys coming home to Michigan, where she was born and raised.

“There's just so much potential in this town – the people, their skill levels and the infrastructure. Everyone is so down on Detroit. But there are so many other areas of potential here,” Burris said.

To that end, she is working with a group to see if Detroit and its City Airport could become a base for a kind of girls' air academy – a place where female students could be exposed to aviation, rockets, science and more.

Impressed yet? I am.

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