“What year did we snatch the president of the Congo’s airplane?” Nick Popovich asks. Outside, chilly rain soaks the pastures of his rolling Indiana country estate. From a pond with a gushing fountain, waterfowl honk faintly.
An assistant rifles through records as Popovich assures me cheerfully, “We're not going back to central Africa soon. There’s still a death warrant out for me.”
Driving to Valparaiso on a two-lane blacktop, I saw only a sign with the name of Popovich’s horse farm. But once I turned off the road, drove up the driveway, and entered this opulent ranch-style residence, I found a global operation ticking with the stealthy clockwork of a CIA front. From these headquarters, Popovich plots to repossess some of the world’s largest aircraft. If you’ve been leasing a $150 million jumbo jet and missed a few payments recently, you might want to glance outside and make sure it’s still there.
Popovich once flew everything from DC-8s to a Braniff Airways 747. Looking at this intense, bearded man, who favors loose-fitting flowered shirts, I had a hard time picturing him in a blue suit with braid on the sleeves, filing flight plans at a corporate hub. “I felt like a bus driver,” he says. Offered a share in a Caribbean startup, he bailed on the big airlines and plunged into the shark tank of small charter ops. Some requisite financial wrangling left him owing a favor to a U.S. bank. One day in 1979, the bankers called to collect: A Sri Lankan airline was in default on two 747s, and the banker asked Popovich to bring them home.
He recruited some pilot friends and ad-libbed a grab of the colossal aircraft. Afterward, the banker advised him that for his next repo, he should charge three times as much. Popovich never looked back. He formed Sage-Popovich, Inc. (Sage is the surname of his now-ex wife), and the company has gone on to seize more than 1,200 airliners. “When times are bad,” Popovich says, “it’s good for us.”
The company is brought in when the dunning has run its course—the bank has sent all the official warnings, and the airline has been through the default process. It’s surprising how commonly airliners get behind the eight ball, says Al Nigro. For 25 years Nigro managed leasing and financing of commercial aircraft at institutions like Bank of America and Deutsche Bank; he used to hire Popovich, and now he works for him as his vice president. “If an airline has a weak summer travel season,” says Nigro, “you can pretty well predict they’re going to struggle through the winter and may fall behind on their payments.” Maybe a new competitor is sapping market share, or a plane-buying binge has left a carrier with a fiscal morning-after. On the other hand, he adds, “Some of them are just downright crooks. Just because the airplane is physically big, that doesn’t mean the company that’s leasing it is big—or particularly honest.”
Sage-Popovich carries out about 50 recoveries a year, some of multiple aircraft. The most common target are Boeing 737s, but Popovich and his team retrieve everything from 747s to luxury executive jets. Chasing smaller stuff—the “tinker toys”—isn’t cost-efficient for an operation that keeps as many as 60 people in the field at a time.
An airline’s financial failure is messy, dragging down livelihoods and futures. Individual pilots and mechanics idled by a repo do get Popovich’s sympathy (and sometimes offers of temporary employment). But he also says: “It’s just business. It’s just a financial situation.” He and his team scheme airliner repossessions with cool calculation around a glossy mahogany conference table.
When banks hire the company, they don’t delve too deeply into how the job will be executed. “Not that we would ever do anything illegal,” Popovich says, “but they’d just rather not know how we did it. The rule is ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell—just get our airplane back.’ ”
Jennifer Barlow, the company’s project planner, masterminds a repossession’s complex logistics. There are conference calls with banks and insurers and opinions from lawyers. Then, Barlow says firmly, “We decide what needs to be done.” She does not mean putting a strongly worded reminder in the mail.
She begins compiling a three-ring binder called the Repo Book. It includes affidavits of default, power of attorney, and all the legalese required to satisfy international treaties governing the process: everything that will give the crew the rights of a lawful owner.
Sage-Popovich also makes a determination whether the repo will be “friendly” or “non-friendly.” (Barlow estimates that defaulting airlines cooperate in the repossession of their airplanes less than 20 percent of the time.) In a non-friendly repo, “they’re probably going to try to hide the aircraft from us,” she says. As the airline continues to use the aircraft to make money, it may juggle routes and schedules to frustrate recovery. Charter aircraft, which don’t fly set routes or on timetables, can be particularly elusive. One outfit (Popovich wouldn’t identify carriers presently operating) repeatedly gave the repo men the slip by exploiting Egypt’s loose enforcement of financial covenants. Sage-Popovich arranged for a go-between to charter the desired airplane under the guise of a lucrative U.K. tour-group contract. The eager operator flew the airliner out of its Egyptian haven and landed in repo-friendly Britain. “We just watched and waited until the crew checked into their hotel,” Popovich says, “then we grabbed their plane and flew away.”
The company uses online tracking services and software, but furtive airlines can block the display of tail numbers. They can run, but the Federal Aviation Administration, Transport Canada, and Eurocontrol won’t hide them. Cooperative officials tip off Popovich when the airliner shows up on air traffic screens.
Once the quarry is cornered, the bank may exercise its right to an inspection, to be performed by Sage-Popovich employees. An airworthiness survey and avionics inventory are conducted. Engines are sometimes leased separately and shuffled around within an airline’s fleet, so their provenance is verified. Hands must be laid on the aircraft’s technical records, which the operator has sometimes placed in lockdown. Refusal to surrender them is an anti-repo ploy—an airplane without papers could be devalued as much as 50 percent. Years of expensive maintenance checks would have to be re-performed before the bank can market it. At insolvent airlines, morale is usually in the tank, so Sage-Popovich may need to identify ticked-off personnel to liberate the vital maintenance logs.
Behind standard procedure, however, lurks ulterior motive. “We try to do these inspections in a nonchalant way,” Nigro says, “because often there’s another purpose. It’s really a reconnaissance mission to plot the repossession.” What’s the layout of the airport? How hard will it be to get a repo crew in and out? What routes is the airplane flying?
Back in Indiana, Jennifer Barlow is assembling the team. Pilots are hired as independent contractors. “We get hundreds of résumés,” she says, paging through a binder bulging with applications. Compensation depends on ratings and specialties—and which country the pilots will be required to snatch the airplane out of and how risky the job is. In some situations, Barlow says, “pilots can pretty much name their price.”
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.
In case of last-minute snags—like testy airport personnel refusing to tug the airplane out—thrust reversers can be used to power back from the gate. See ya.
Still, countermeasures happen. Airline employees might lock aircraft to ramp vehicles, or chain a cockpit window open so the airplane can’t be pressurized. Over-loyal employees have created awkward moments: “We’ve had guys get on the airplane while we were taking it and refuse to get off,” Popovich says. Employees have also called security to report an airliner being “stolen by terrorists.” Popovich has been offered cash—$150,000 once—“and all sorts of things” as inducement not to take an airplane.
It’s not just airlines that put stumbling blocks in Popovich’s way; local bureaucracy can make life difficult for his team. When the French carrier Fairlines defaulted on its fleet of tricked-out MD-80s, Sage-Popovich got the call. After scoring one in Italy, Nick set his sights on another known to frequent Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport. He found it at Terminal 1, neatly surrounded by orange cones to prevent access. (Yeah, that’s going to stop him.) Some sort of document—it would turn out to be a judge’s order grounding the airplane due to unpaid fuel bills—was taped to the cabin door. “But it was all in French,” Popovich says, “so I just tore it off.”
His team ran through the checklists and lit engines. Immediately, a jeep-load of gendarmes appeared and Popovich was hauled before a magistrate. “In my infinite wisdom, I admitted that there was something posted on the aircraft’s door,” he recalls. “But I informed the judge that if it was really so important, it should have been in English, since that’s the official language of aviation.” The next day he was escorted, in handcuffs, to the first U.S.-bound flight and sent home.
Popovich and team flew to Madrid and reentered France via rail. At de Gaulle they found the MD-80 still grounded, with tanks drained and more French fine print attached. An Air Afrique Airbus next to it was being refueled. Popovich talked to the captain and got him to sell enough fuel to get as far as Iceland. “Everyone was going to be looking for us,” he says, “so I wanted to get out from under Eurocontrol ASAP.” He had already exercised power of attorney to de-register the aircraft from its Luxembourg flag and had obtained a U.S. registration number. The de Gaulle tower cleared the now-American plane for taxi and takeoff. Popovich landed in Iceland with less than 30 minutes’ worth of fuel remaining.
In one case, government intervention dragged the repo out for months. Kevin Lacey had been assigned to get a trio of 737s out from the interior of Brazil. The airplanes belonged to state-owned VASP Airlines. For 75 years it had been the pride of Brazilian aviation, but it had gone bankrupt. Making matters worse, says Lacey, “everybody hates Americans down there anyway.” And the Brazilian army wanted to retain the airliners for military use. While in Brazil, Lacey was put under house arrest, then deported. He returned, and a judge allowed him to take possession of the airplanes but not fly them out of Brazil. To keep them away from the Brazilian military, Lacey took them to the most remote airstrip he could find. Eventually, the court ruled in the company’s favor, releasing two of the three airplanes. The other was ultimately paid off with insurance money and left behind.
In some countries the Sage-Popovich brand raises red flags, so to get confiscated airliners through foreign air traffic control, the repo crew has to finesse them. To file flight plans and overflight permits, the company will enlist a third party—“Somebody with a name that doesn’t carry the connotation we do,” Popovich says. To spring an airplane encumbered by local financial liens, six-figure wire transfers from a U.S. bank are sometimes required too. Might payoffs to the right officials—in the sort of locales that would prefer cash—also expedite the vanishing of a multi-million-dollar airliner? Popovich quickly corrects my terminology. “We negotiate with them,” he says, smiling. “It would be against the law to pay them off.”
Ultimately, the perfect repo is the one that never happens. Al Nigro recalls a European carrier in default on two wide-bodies, and flaunting it: “Every day they kept flying those big planes full of passengers in and out of JFK [in New York City], but not paying the rent.” While the lessee brazenly reaped revenue, the lessor chose the Nick Popovich nuclear option. Since it was mid-November, the repo man advised a waiting game: A seizure in December would raise the spectre of hundreds of stranded holiday travelers and lots of bad publicity. “We really weren’t trying to put the airline out of business,” Nigro explains. “We were just making sure we had maximum leverage against them.” As the festive season approached, Popovich prepared to nab the airplanes (“It was like watching a python getting ready to strike,” Nigro says), including notifying dismayed JFK airport officials of his intention. One tipped off the airline, which promptly grounded the airplanes in their home country. “Nick was furious,” Nigro says, “but almost immediately the airline CEO phoned me and said, ‘Okay, you’ve got us. We’ll pay whatever we owe. Just promise not to take our planes if we come to New York.’ The money was at the bank in full the next morning.”
For a small airline, a single forfeiture can be the death knell. But for the airplane, it’s a new life. Before the wheels leave the ground, the bank is already re-marketing the airliner. A fresh paint theme, bold new logos, a spruced-up interior, and it’s a revenue-making magic carpet once more.
With more than 26,000 airliners in the world, one is always ending up in the hands of a failing carrier. And it’s bound to happen eventually—somebody will go deadbeat on the biggest airliner ever built: a 1.2-million-pound, 600-passenger Airbus A380 Superjumbo. Maybe they’ll even try to hide it too. Popovich just shrugs at the gargantuan scale of what will inevitably come next. “It might take us a little time to put together a crew,” he says, “but we’re ready.” This is a man with job security.
Frequent contributor Stephen Joiner writes about aviation from his home in southern California.