By Justin Reedy
This angel has metal wings.
With a short-cropped military haircut and tattoos covering his arms and peeking out of his shirt collar, Hampton resident Tim Perez looks a little too intimidating to be from heaven.
But ask one of the medical patients Perez has flown to a hospital for an organ transplant or other lifesaving treatment, and they'll tell you he's an angel all the same.
On most days, Perez, a 43-year-old professional pilot and flight instructor, stays busy performing aerial surveying for Metro Engineering at Tara Field in Hampton. But at night and on weekends n and sometimes during his normal workday n Perez puts his flying skills to use for Angel Flight Southeast, a charitable organization based in Florida that recruits private pilots to fly those in need of medical treatment to hospitals in other cities.
Perez also works with several other charity and community organizations, including as an aviation merit badge counselor for the Boy Scouts, a pilot for the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation and a pilot and instructor for the Civil Air Patrol in Griffin.
For the former Army infantry officer turned professional pilot, charity work is a great way to help others with his special skills.
"I like to use my experience, and whatever I have, to be a blessing to others," said Perez. "It's like my personal mission."
Perez has come a long way from the "gangbanging" days of his youth n a life change he attributes to his time in the military and his Christian faith.
"Before Christ, I was with the wrong crowd and with the gangs," he recalled with a grim expression. "After getting Christ in my life, I've been serving others. He's given me the spirit to help others. The only thing left from my old life are my tattoos."
Now, Perez can't be involved in enough charities to make up for that bad time in his life. Two months ago he began mentoring 43 youths in Griffin as part of the Civil Air Patrol, and by the end of this year he hopes to have logged 10,000 hours of flying time for charities. Another project he plans to tackle soon involves helping an underprivileged teen-ager earn a pilot's license for a professional career.
"When you see a kid's eyes light up from teaching them something, or someone thanks me for taking them on an Angel Flight, that just warms your heart," said Perez as a smile came to his face. "Maybe I'm selfish, but I get a lot of personal reward out of it."
But one of his most rewarding charities is Angel Flight, which Perez said gives him the chance to bless people with terrible illnesses that are often terminal. Though some of the Angel Flights Perez takes are scheduled at the last minute in the middle of the night or on weekends, he often has to take time away from Metro Engineering during the week to take part in the charity.
For that reason, he's thankful that the company's owner, Chester Smith, and its vice president, Jim Sease, donate company time and the use of a Metro Engineering plane for the flights.
Some of those flights have been the most moving experiences of Perez's life, like the time he was going to fly a seven-year-old named Monica from Mississippi to a hospital in Kentucky to be treated for a colon disorder.
When severe weather led to the flight being scrapped, Monica got upset and wouldn't talk to Perez, so he got onboard the plane to prepare for his flight home. Just then, she ran out to the plane, climbed into the cockpit and hugged him.
"She said, ?I'm sorry, I just thought I was going to fly with you today,'" Perez remembered. "I was so impressed with her courage. Here she was facing this painful, invasive treatment, and she just wanted to fly. I'm trying to be a blessing to these Angel Flight patients, and they just want another pain-free day."
On another flight, Perez was transporting an elderly woman named Barbara for a follow-up treatment after a lung transplant when she tapped him on the shoulder and handed him a card. The card read "Tim, angels are wonderful. Thank you for being my angel."
Then Barbara smiled at the tough-as-nails pilot through her oxygen mask, and it was too much for him to take.
"I had to look out the window at the sunset for a while," Perez said.