By Daniel Silliman
The engine choked. The engine sputtered, and then, it died.
Tim Perez, sitting at the controls, looked out ofthe window of the small airplane, down at the ground below, and thought, "Remain calm."
He had just taken off on his second solo flight, lifted off of the runway and pulled up the wheels. He heard the noise and looked out of the cockpit and thought, "Don't panic."
"I had to think through what I'd been taught," Perez recalled Friday morning, standing in a hangar at Tara Field in Hampton. "What was my altitude? Where was the airport located? Where was I, and how far could I go and land safely?"
Perez said he remained calm, circled back to the airport and managed to land safely.
He knows the value of a flight instructor. He knows a flight instructor can take you from your dream of being a pilot and put you in the air. Once you're there, the instructor's remembered voice can guide you through the harrowing moments of a crisis.
He knows because he was there, a brand new pilot in the air remembering what he'd been taught, and he knows because now, nine years after he first put his hands on an airplane's controls, he's a part-time flight instructor at Tara Field's Pan Pacific Aviation.
Perez recently taught his 1,000th hour of flight instruction, a milestone in his love affair with aviation. Friday morning, at Tara Field, the certified Gold Seal Flight Instructor and Master Flight Instructor recalled how it all began with a mid-life crisis.
"At 40 years old, I had a mid-life crisis and I wanted to get out of the factory," he said. "I took my first lesson and from that first day, I said, 'I love this and am going to give it everything I got.'"
Today, Perez has turned his dreamed-of-hobby into a career, flying mapping planes full-time for Metro Engineering and Surveying, and flying part-time, and on a volunteer basis, for a number of other operations.
He especially enjoys teaching flying, because "You just open up the whole world for exploring," he said. "Most people have dreamed of flying. A lot of folks don't know it's available to them. I didn't know until I was 40."
Perez has been teaching Emmanuel Lewis -- the four-feet, three-inch star of "Webster" in the 1980s and, more recently, of the reality TV show "The Surreal Life" -- how to fly, opening up that world seen from above.
Lewis, who lives in Fayette County, said he met Perez at Tara Field and found he was gravitating toward the Army and Navy veteran, until he eventually asked Perez to be his personal flight instructor. Lewis expects to complete his lessons next month. He said he's learned more than just flying from Perez.
"You have to get the task at hand done, without letting the circumstances overwhelm you," Lewis said. "Tim would say, 'Look buddy.' He would say, 'You have to compartmentalize the tasks you have to do.' That was just like an epiphany to me, not just in aviation but in life. To me, he's just been a godsend to help me to deal with a lot of issues personally, and in that cockpit."
On Friday morning, wearing a leather jacket against the January cold, 48-year-old master flight instructor was, himself, dealing with the tasks at hand, compartmentalizing and taking them one at a time. Preparing for a three-hour mapping flight over metro Atlanta, Perez was walking around his blue and white, 61 AERO Commander. He had a checklist and he was walking around the plane: Structural stability, check. Nothing broken, check. Lubricant levels, check. Engine in good condition, check. Landing gear, check.
"Just making sure it's air-worthy," said Perez, who is also a candidate for Spalding County sheriff. "Once you suck the wheels up into the well, your options are limited. Pre-flight is your last chance to make sure nothing has come apart since the last flight."
Friday morning, sitting behind a small blue globe at his desk, Perez checked the weather reports and the most recent airspace restriction reports, preparing for another flight, another day in the air.
"I love it," he said. "You do it because you love it, not because you get rich. I took my first lesson and I was like this ... and the thrill is still there. I think it's the romance of being a pilot."