Grab the Airplane and Go
How to repossess an airliner without getting shot, or thrown in jail, or beat up, or slammed into a wall, or...
- By Stephen Joiner
- Air & Space magazine, May 2010
Courtesy Sage-Popovich Inc.
(Page 3 of 5)
Repo pilot Kevin Lacey looks and sounds a lot like the Dennis Weaver character from the 1970s TV series “McCloud.” Despite the folksy demeanor, Lacey has a reputation as a somewhat Machiavellian aero-sleuth who always gets his airplane. He thrives on the sport of it: tracking an errant commuter airliner to its gate at a big European airport, then pouncing in the hours just before passengers arrive for an early flight. When he tells you he regrets not sticking around to apologize to inconvenienced fliers, you believe him. But he’s also sorry to miss “the expression on that airline agent’s face when they realized their plane was gone.”
Besides pilots and mechanics, Sage-Popovich sometimes recruits other specialists. In Russia and Colombia, where foreigners can be kidnapped, the company rolls with bodyguards. The extra muscle is strictly for self-defense, however. If repo resistance escalates to the physical, “you just have to walk away,” Popovich says.
Well, he says that now. During a repo in the mid-1980s, both sides got physical. A U.S. financier had hired Popovich to snatch a Boeing 720 from a tour operator in Haiti who was in default. Though the aircraft had a book value of only $600,000, an airport manager refused to release it unless a million dollars was deposited in a Swiss bank account. Having made arrangements with an entrepreneurial Port-au-Prince airport employee, Nick showed up around midnight with an air starter (720s lack an onboard auxiliary power unit to start engines). The field had been closed for hours when the team fired up the big turbofans. As he began adding power, Popovich says, “I saw the first tracer rounds streak over the top of the airplane.”
He veered to a stop and Haitian troops swarmed the airplane, bayonetting fuel cells in the wings. “I got out and shoved one of them,” Nick says with a sigh. “The rest of them beat the hell out of me and threw me into the national penitentiary in downtown Port-au-Prince. A dirt-floor cell with no roof and 35 people in it.” In addition to the million-buck drop in Switzerland, the Haitians wanted $150,000 to release Popovich. “The American embassy did nothing for me,” he grumbles. A week later, however, the regime of dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier collapsed. The prison gates were thrown open. “Everyone ran out into the street,” Nick laughs. “But that plane is still down there today. The only commercial aircraft that got away from us.”
Naturally, the team doesn’t appreciate a welcoming committee. “It’s usually not in our interest to give them any notice that we’re coming,” Popovich says. The phone calls, the certified letters, the sudden inspection—executives at dysfunctional carriers hear the repo clock ticking, but the exact day of reckoning is intended to be a shock. Execution is hour- and even minute-sensitive. “We know where a plane will be at a particular moment. We may not know where it’s going to be tomorrow.”
Then—rock and roll. Sage-Popovich owns a Hawker 700 and a Bombardier Challenger, executive jets that are often used for a SWAT-like opening sequence: “Flying into an airport at night, dumping my crew at the airplane we’re after, and going from there,” Nick says. The airplane is now their legal property, and they act like it. Says Popovich, who still attends about half the repossessions: “Sometimes you’ve got to get ugly and say, ‘You wanna screw with us? We’ll call a federal marshal and you can explain to a judge why you interfered with this repossession.’ ”
When the crew reaches the airliners, the sight they’re greeted with isn’t always pretty. Cut-rate Tower Air kept its wide-body fleet flying by quietly dismantling a trio of 747s leased from GMAC and dispersing the components among its 18 other airplanes. When Tower defaulted, the repo crew arrived to find little more than a shell of GMAC’s collateral. “The fuselages were still there,” Popovich says, “but most of the engines, all the avionics, hydraulic pumps, flight controls, landing gear parts—missing.” As Tower lurched into liquidation, Sage-Popovich rounded up 16 of the carrier’s intact 747s. It was a sweep of jumbos on a global scale. “JFK, Paris, Israel—they were scattered all over the world,” Nick says.
By the time the crew is ready to fly off, the hard part is usually done. Cabin doors on unoccupied airliners aren’t usually locked. The safety of an airliner is predicated on its being parked in a secured location, not on the aircraft having any built-in security features. And once in, you don’t have to hot-wire a 747 because, like all airliners, you don’t need keys to start it up.