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TV star 'Webster' seeking pilot's license at Tara Field

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Emmanuel Lewis has a map of Puerto Rico and he's really excited about it.

The 31-year-old, four-foot-three celebrity, who played Webster on the sitcom "Webster" in the 1980s, and has recently been a reality TV star, is standing next to the wing of an airplane in a hangar at Tara Field, talking about this map.

"There are islands on that map I didn't know were in the world!" he says.

He's standing there, wearing a goldenrod-colored, button-up shirt and a heavy brown jacket, with one hand on the wing of the airplane and his small voice rising into exclamation points.

"In the world!" he says again.

In the last couple of years, Lewis has been a bit of an "airport bum" out at Tara Field.

Driving up from his home in Fayette County, he has been taking flying lessons at the Henry County airport. He hangs out with Tim Perez, at Metro Engineering and Surveying, where Perez flies mapping planes.

Lewis has been taking flying lessons from Perez and the two have also become friends, so Perez invites Lewis to his home for cookouts and calls the celebrity "Manny" and "Buddy," and Lewis has agreed to film television ads for Perez' campaign for Spalding County Sheriff.

Today, the two talk about island-hopping around Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. Perez says he's had trouble with some of the airports on some of the islands not answering their phones when they don't feel like it. He pantomimes how he had to fly low under severe storm clouds and maneuver around a tall ship.

Lewis laughs.

Even if you didn't remember his name, or confused him with that other short, black, TV star of the 80s, Gary Coleman, you would remember Lewis' laugh. His laugh is A-list famous and he laughs all the time, out at Tara Field. Some people have described his laugh as a "chipmunk laugh" and some have said it is "maniacal," but it's not like that. Lewis laughs all of a sudden, and at full volume, like he was already ready and just waiting to let it out. It's full-throated and high-pitched, rocking his body, lighting up his face, and causing those around him to giggle and grin.

Perez, calling Lewis "the life of the party," tries to explain Lewis' sense of humor. "We'll be chit-chatting on the phone," Perez says, "and I'll be like, 'Hey Manny, where are you?' and he'll say, 'Turn around.' He'll be standing right there."

Lewis, taking a turn to tell a story on his flight instructor and friend, recalls the time Perez flew him in a small plane across Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport airspace. "These huge planes are going this way," Lewis says, "and planes are going that way. He's talking to them! And planes are like vrrroooooom! He's cool and trucking along. Meanwhile, I'm checking my britches."

The two men laugh. They're joking and teasing, but the anecdotes also pinpoint what each one, when serious, finds most admirable about the other.

To Perez, Lewis is good-hearted, friendly, fun and caring. To Lewis, Perez is confident, cool under pressure, self reliant and never rattled.

Lewis asked Perez to be his personal instructor, after having some bad experiences with what he calls "kamikaze" instructors in the past. Perez accepted, even though he doesn't normally give primary flight instruction, but he liked Lewis and he agreed.

"We just bonded immediately," Perez says.

Today, Lewis is one solo flight away from having his pilots license. It's a dream he's had for a while, saying that flying represents "ultimate freedom" and the "highest level of self reliance." When he gets the license, he says, he wants to fly an island-hopping tour through the Caribbean, and that's part of the goal of getting the license. But as soon as he mentions it, he and Perez are laughing and planning the trip, as if they are going to leave tomorrow.

When they fly together, Perez says, they talk like this the whole way -- planning, laughing, and veering off into stories -- until they get back to Tara Field and it's after midnight.

"When you're flying somewhere," Lewis says. "You want to say, 'Oh look!' or, 'Did you see that?' It's just good to have that extra set of eyes. Someone to share it with."