Full-time lawyer, part-time pilot: The story of one John Marshall alum


As published by NewsTribune 

aircraft-994943_1280As with most lawyers, John Fisher spends hours chained to his desk and poring over dry case law. Unlike most of his peers, Fisher can get fly well above the drudgery when he needs a break.

Fisher, 61, isn’t just a solo practitioner with an office in Peru. He is also a commercial pilot who flies a twin-engine plane. 

“I started flying when I was in high school,” recalled Fisher, whose father Jack retired from American Airlines and introduced him to aviation at a young age. “A friend and I used to sneak out of school to go flying.

“I’ve always had an interest in flying, but I finished my license after I got out of law school, and I continued and got my commercial license.”

Many residents of the Illinois Valley hold second jobs or moonlight to earn extra cash; but a few local residents have more novel side avocations they pursue not because of the money but for gratification they may not get from their day jobs.

John Thompson now is retired as Bureau County sheriff and  is a pilot for a large Bureau County-based corporation, enabling him to see the world from a view few people get to experience.

“I love it,” Thompson gushed. “It’s that rush of taking off — of knowing there’s a small percentage of people that can do this.”

What both men have in common is they were introduced to flying through their fathers, first cultivated a love of aviation in their younger years and put their primary vocations first.

“When I was a kid, my dad motivated me to fly,” Thompson recalled. “I was about 14 when he brought it up, but I was interested in girls and cars, not flying.  My dad had a military background and it was something that always had interested him.”

That Fisher became a full-time lawyer and part-time pilot is ironic because he went to law school in hopes of never having to moonlight again. After college at Eastern Illinois University, Fisher was a physical education-health teacher in Crystal Lake who worked nights as a firefighter and EMT for the Arlington Heights Fire Department.

The twin vocations were grueling and he began to burn out.

His second career started was born from an unexpected trip to the courthouse. One of Fisher’s ambulance calls was to a victim in the notorious Tylenol poisonings of 1982; five Chicagoans were killed with cyanide-tainted painkillers in a case that remains unsolved. Fisher was summoned to court as a witness and enjoyed the experience enough to apply to John Marshall Law School, where he graduated with honors.

As a practicing attorney, leisure time was as scarce as it had been as a teacher-EMT; but now he had the money to pursue an old hobby.

“When I got established in my practice I decided flying was something I’d like to really ramp up,” he said. “I started flying almost every day and moving up from private pilot to instrument pilot to multi-engine pilot to commercial pilot.”

Though he became licensed for commercial flights in 2003, Fisher has derived only a tiny portion of his income from flying. His law practice commands many hours, and he’s picked up only an occasional charter flight from fellow pilots who were overbooked.

“I’m flying less and less now,” he admitted. But having two careers nonetheless sustains his varied interests. “With the law, every day is different. Things are constantly changing.

“With being a pilot, I like the freedom. I like being able to say, ‘OK, I want to go here,’ and to be in control of the plane. I love navigation; that’s my passion.”

Passion is a good word for Thompson’s attraction to aviation. He said he became obsessed with flying during a stint in the U.S. Army in the 1970s, though it was recreation, not vocation that led him there.

“I flew with some buddies on the weekends and I loved it,” Thompson said.  “The Army allowed me the opportunity to go to a military-operated flying club (for lessons) and it took off from there.”

Though Thompson jokes that flying was something to do besides drink beer on the weekends while stationed in Germany, it was there that a lifelong passion took hold.

Thompson worked his way up the ranks earning his pilot’s license in 1977, his commercial license three years later, and eventually earning an air transport license, the highest level of aircraft pilot license.

During his almost four decades as a pilot Thompson said he has been lucky in that all his flights have been good ones. Even as a flight instructor, he’s never had any scary, white-knuckle moments.

(The meticulous Fisher did have one. He had a valve failure en route to Springfield but made an emergency landing in Peoria, unharmed. “My palms were sweaty,” he recalled.)

Thompson flew for Quad Cities and Peoria companies during a brief break from law enforcement in the late 1990s and early 2000s and was a corporate pilot for Montsanto in the past. But there never was a question as to whether his first calling was to law enforcement or to the air.

“I’ve always been a cop,” Thompson said firmly. “When I grew up it was with the intention of becoming a cop.  When I got out of the army I intended to be a cop.  I always thought, when I retire maybe then there will be an opportunity (to fly),” Thompson said.

Now that that opportunity is here, Thompson is enjoying the ride.

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