Flying to their rescue

10 Feb


Jerry Perelman, a volunteer pilot for Animal Rescue Flights, brings rescue dog from Indiana to his new foster mom on Long Island. 

After spending 32 years inspiring city schoolkids to appreciate music, Jerry Perelman has traded his classroom for a Piper Archer cockpit.

Today, the retired teacher and assistant principal is donating his time, money and passion for flying as a volunteer pilot for Animal Rescue Flights, a nonprofit group that helps fly needy dogs to safety.

“It’s a much more rewarding way to be charitable than writing a check,” said Perelman, who last week was crowned Town of North Hempstead’s Hometown Hero, in recognition of his charitable animal rescue work.

The hobbyist pilot, who lives in Roslyn, L.I., has been flying Cessnas and Piper Warriors on joyrides and sight-seeing jaunts since he was 19, after graduating from the Manhattan School of Music.

He became hooked on flying animal rescue missions in 2008 after landing at Republic Airport in Farmingdale, L.I., with a partially paralyzed long-haired red dachshund named Aggie aboard his rented four-seater Piper Archer.

“When I took her out of the cage, she looked at me and practically jumped into my arms. She knew we had saved her,” said Perelman, a member of the five-pilot tag team that relayed the 7-year-old dog from Fort Wayne, Ind., where she had been abandoned by her owner at a local shelter.

Perelman, who started the city’s first marching chorus, has since flown half a dozen animal rescue missions, the cost for each averaging about $650 for plane rental and fuel.

Most recently, he flew four rambunctious puppies from an Ohio shelter from Westchester County airport to a rescue group in Vermont.

Today, Perelman is among ARF’s 822 pilots.

The cost per flight for each pilot ranges from $90 for very short flights to several thousand dollars, which was paid for by a generous “angel” who uses his personal Citation Jet to make difficult missions possible, said ARF co-founder Clark Burgard.

Burgard and co-founder and pilot Julia Ryan started the nonprofit group four years ago after learning about the severity of the animal overpopulation — particularly in Southern shelters — and the need to transport the animals to other states where they could find homes.

Each rescue mission is coordinated through the group’s website, where interested pilots exchange emails on their availability and location.

Once each leg of the flight is fully coordinated, the mission’s a go.

The impressive rescues in the group’s “Great Escape” series, which involves coordinating enough pilots to empty all the cages in a particular shelter, offer participants a great sense of accomplishment.

“Animals give back a tremendous amount of affection to caring owners, but it’s often a challenge to connect ‘unwanted’ animals to qualified adopters in other states due to the distances involved,” Burgard said.

“All our pilots enjoy flying, and being able to put those skills to work to save lives is a highly worthwhile mission,” he added.

Even more dramatic was the request for ARF to transport an 800-pound manatee that found its way into Cape Cod Bay. Burgard said large aircraft owners offered to donate a WWII-era propeller airliner for the flight back to Florida, but fortunately the manatee found its own way back.

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