No fear of flying

Bill Katt ’76


Spring 2014

“I often reflect on how God directed the key moments in my life so I would be using my gifts in this unique way,” said Bill Katt ’76.

Katt does have a unique position: an attorney specializing in airline and flight-related cases nationwide.

An admitted underachiever in his first few years at Calvin, Katt recalls history professor Henry Ippel asking how he did on a recent test. Katt’s report of a B- didn’t sit well with the thoughtful teacher.

“His eyes pierced right through me,” said Katt. “He told me I was capable of doing better and should be doing better.”

Ippel’s words lit a fire under the Sheboygan, Wis., student, and Katt switched his major to history and gave his studies better effort. As he was graduating, a Calvin friend who had tried law school but gave up that direction influenced Katt to try law. He enrolled at Marquette University.

At Marquette, Katt again struggled initially until he put together “my Calvin training of recognizing the issues and using different problem-solving skills.” He was fortunate to be taken on by a prominent Milwaukee law firm for a variety of assignments—and was later hired by the same company, making partner in five years.

“Law is perfect for the liberal arts graduate,” he said, “because you have to learn about so many subjects and issues—and then add speaking, writing and relational skills to do justice to the matter at hand.”

Another key moment in his career happened on a golf course in California. On that course, a colleague recommended Katt to a client who needed help in an airline-related case. Although Katt knew little about the issues initially, he worked hard on the case and won it. More aviation cases began coming his way.

“Many lawyers in aviation law tend to have been pilots themselves. It is a tough field to break into. But I studied and learned and became proficient in working on these cases,” he said.

Katt took this effort all the way into a cockpit, enrolling in “ground school” classes in aviation—learning about planes, engines, weather, charting flying routes and pilot self-awareness. He put in many hours of personal flying lessons. Eventually, he decided against flying regularly himself because “a pilot must fly regularly to stay on top of it, and I wasn’t at that point. That’s part of the self-awareness I learned about,” he said.

From that initial aviation case, Katt built a national reputation for handling difficult cases when commercial airlines, private planes, corporate jets or helicopters are involved. Currently, as a partner in the firm Wilson Elser in Milwaukee, Wis., he handles all major cases for Delta Airlines and for the largest emergency helicopter service in the country.

“Aviation accounts for 80 to 90 percent of my caseload these days,” Katt said. “I work hard at resolving issues out of court and actually find myself in court for only one or two of these cases a year.”

It is difficult at times, he said, to separate sympathy for a person injured in an aviation accident and the justice of resolving the case fairly. Sometimes, affected families believe that a large settlement will somehow heal some of their pain or there is simply greed evident in the actions of the family or their attorneys. These issues can prevent or delay a fair resolution of a case.

“I think our legal system is great,” Katt concluded. “There are, no doubt, excesses. But without the courts our cars and houses wouldn’t be as safe as they are. In many cases, things wouldn’t have been fixed voluntarily. We need to have a balance, and our society is better as a result.”

Does all of this work in aviation accidents affect his attitude on flying? Not at all.

“I have a lot of respect for the industry and those that fly and maintain aviation equipment,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I don’t pilot a plane anymore. Only the fully dedicated should be doing so. But today’s safety protocols are impressive.”

And he looks back on a career trajectory that seems, well, predestined.

Katt said, “I am so grateful to God that He brought people into my life at the right times to guide my direction. I’m doing what I was meant to do and am gifted at doing.”