Airplane Repo True Stories

Exploring fact and fiction in the high-stakes world of aircraft repossession.

The airplane repo agent has been tracking this prey for weeks. Sitting on the ramp is his prize — a pristine, late-model Piper Malibu with a gorgeous paint job and perfect leather interior. A loan payment hasn’t been made in months, and the bank wants this asset back now. It should fetch a premium price on the open market.

The airplane’s owner has already lost his boat to foreclosure and is in danger of having the bank take his house. With the Malibu finally located, the paperwork in order and a thorough examination of the logbooks completed, the repo man is about to take his airplane too. All that’s left is to climb aboard and fly off into the sunset.

As the bank-appointed agent begins the long walk across the ramp to the plane, the Malibu’s keys held tightly in his fist, he hears footsteps nearby.

“Hey,” a voice calls out. It’s the airplane’s now-former owner, who reaches out his hand. “Thanks again,” he says, a weak smile on his face and sincerity in his eyes. “I know you tried to do everything you could with the bank to help me keep my airplane. I appreciate it.”

They shake hands and bid a final farewell before the repo agent fires up the engine and taxies out. Months later a red envelope with a return address from the Malibu pilot arrives in the agent’s mailbox. It’s a Christmas card bearing a warm holiday greeting and wishes for a happy, healthy New Year.

Despite what you might have seen on TV, aircraft repossessions rarely go down the way they’re portrayed by the cable programs. Run-ins with law enforcement are rare, fisticuffs with angry former aircraft owners even rarer, and nobody will ever hop an airport fence, make a hasty hydraulic system repair with a roll of duct tape and blast off into the night sky in an airplane they’ve never set eyes on.

Sorry to disappoint you, but if you’re a fan of the repo reality shows, what you’re seeing on the screen might not be 100 percent real after all.

Airplane Repo Nick Popovich
Nick Popovich has been king of the airplane repo business for more than 35 years, nabbing airliners, private jets and helicopters for bank clients on every continent.

Repo Realities

Just ask top aircraft repossession professionals. Well-known repo men like Nick Popovich and Ken Hill have been doing this job for decades. Over the last 20 years Hill has personally repossessed more than 1,000 general aviation airplanes for the banks. Popovich has been at it almost twice as long, repossessing everything from King Airs to multimillion-dollar private jets and airliners and even an entire fleet of helicopters in one fell swoop. Both admit they’ve found themselves in some sticky situations — but they say that in the vast majority of cases aircraft repossessions normally involve lots of detective work but little actual made-for-TV drama.

“The real airplane repo business is nothing like you see on the TV shows,” Hill says. “Rarely do I show up to repossess an airplane and somebody doesn’t know I’m coming already. If I haven’t called the airplane owner in advance to let him know I’m on my way that day, then the bank has already sent him three notices telling him I’m coming.”

Airplane repo shows also rarely give the viewer a sense of how long the repossession process takes from the time the bank-appointed professional shows up on airport property until he’s swinging onto the active runway for departure. “It can take a few hours or a few days,” Hill says. “I don’t ever hop in an airplane without knowing its airworthiness status. Not under any circumstances.”

There will be times when maybe it’s impossible to locate the airframe or engine logbooks, Hill admits — perhaps because they’re locked up in a hangar somewhere or because the owner has refused to hand them over — but in those cases, the repo professional merely needs to be creative. While remaining well within legal boundaries, snooping can often yield the best results. Normally the first person to talk with if the aircraft owner can’t be located and the logbooks are missing is the mechanic who performed the last annual inspection or repair work.

It might sound risky to rely on the word of an unknown third party for your personal flying safety. But even if it turns out the mechanic is a friend of the airplane’s owner, it’s still the maintenance professional’s name that goes in the logbook for any inspections performed — not to mention his A&P license that’s on the line. “I’ve found that the mechanics I’ve dealt with are concerned first and foremost with the safety of the person flying the airplane, whether it’s the owner or not,” Hill says. From his thousands of hours of flying experience, Hill says he also has an intimate knowledge of piston and turbine airplanes that can help him make safe go/no-go decisions in just about any aircraft he’s repossessed.

If the logbooks are missing or there are other anomalies with an airplane, oftentimes it will be necessary to obtain a ferry permit from the FAA — allowing an airplane with an expired annual, for example, to be flown to another nearby airport where necessary work can be performed. The process involves visiting the local Flight Standards District Office and asking for a special flight permit to transition the airplane from point A to B. It’s not exactly the kind of stuff a general TV audience would find enthralling — pilots would probably love it though.

Really, the true-life stories of airplane repo men and women are ­immensely interesting and entertaining. Popovich started out in the repo business in 1979. Over the last 35 years he’s seen just about everything you can imagine. He’s repo’d airliners and private jets on every continent. In rougher parts of the world — places like Russia and Colombia — his firm hires bodyguards. If a situation escalates to physical violence, the protocol is to simply walk away. He once tricked a problematic private jet owner into handing over an airplane by phoning up to charter it. When the airplane rolled up to the FBO to pick up its supposed load of passengers, Popovich’s team slapped a repossession notice on the side of the jet and claimed it as its own.

Best of Times, Worst of Times

In general, when times are bad, business is good for professionals like Popovich and Hill. But this last downturn was different, they say. In the wake of the 2008 economic collapse, with a flood of business jets and general aviation airplanes hitting the used market, Popovich, for example, now advises banks to do everything in their power to avoid repossessing an airplane.

“In most of the cases right now, especially in corporate and general aviation, the banks are so far underwater on the loan balance that to repossess an airplane and then pay to store it and resell it, it really doesn’t make economic sense,” he says. “As long as it’s still being maintained and insured, they’re better off working something out with the borrower.”

Popovich’s firm, Sage-Popovich Inc., has created a program for banks and jet owners that lets the borrowers maintain possession of the airplane and start paying down the loan, usually under new terms. Popovich and his team then keep close tabs on the aircraft to ensure the borrower is holding up his end of the bargain.

Revenue the company receives from aircraft monitoring, periodic inspections, appraisals and other activity, in fact, now exceeds what comes in from aircraft repossessions. There’s method to this approach, of course. Being proactive about monitoring the status of a borrower’s aircraft means Popovich is never too many steps behind an owner in determining the location and condition of a given airplane. If it eventually comes down to repo’ing the airplane, Popovich’s staff already has a large file on it and should have a good idea of where to find it.

Grab and Go

That’s always the first step in any airplane repo job — finding it. Once the repo pro locates it, sometimes no easy job, he or she then affixes a repossession notice on the airplane and calls the local police to explain what’s going on. “We let them know we’ve just repossessed an airplane and document the time, date, officer’s name and report number,” Popovich says. “The police department will normally send out an officer and file a report. Then technically the airplane is ours.” From there, Popovich says, he arranges to pay for any outstanding hangar fees, fuel and maintenance. Once the airplane is legally his to take, he can simply drive up and offload his crew. Then it’s a simple matter of grab it and go. That normally means towing the airplane to another spot on the airport for hours of close inspection before flying it.

“Since 9/11 it’s become more of a mental process, trying to figure out how to gain access to the airplane without breaking the law,” Popovich says. “We have to figure out how to work with, or around, the security at specific airports — and that’s frankly one of the reasons we bought our own airplane. It’s much easier to fly into an airport yourself and take your target than to figure out how to get around the security fence at an airport you’re not badged at.”

As you might suspect, adhering to federal aviation regulations can make the aircraft repo agent’s job much tougher. The FARs, for instance, say that in order to obtain a ferry permit you need written permission from the airplane owner. Obviously in some instances that’s not going to be easy to get, especially if a desperate owner has skipped town or left the country. In those cases the bank usually must complete all the repossession paperwork, wait for legal transfer of ownership and file for a new registration with the FAA. It’s time-consuming, and again not exactly the type of heart-pounding excitement that makes for great TV viewing.

Airplane Repo Ken Hill
From angry former owners to undocumented repair work, airplane repo pros like Ken Hill must deal with on-the-job issues most pilots never dream about.

In the old days, Hill and Popovich say, the airplane repo profession was a lot grittier, with characters who were far more willing to bend the rules to snag an airplane. But in the post-9/11 environment, airplane repo specialists find they must operate more like private detectives than thieves in the night. Nowadays there’s the ever-present threat of being arrested — or worse, of getting slapped with a lawsuit. As a result, the typical aircraft repossession these days is likely to involve a lot more paperwork than in the past and fewer made-for-TV moments.

However, action is what draws TV viewers and, in turn, television advertisers. Each week, fans of the Discovery channel show Airplane Repo are treated to nonstop action and drama as the series’ repo men and women do whatever it takes to track down an airplane. The show’s stars claim the action isn’t faked — though the producers admit that given “the fast-paced and dangerous nature” of this line of work, the repo men and women often find themselves in tough situations and “as a result key identifying information is sometimes changed and select dramatizations employed.”

Drama on TV

If you’ve ever tuned into Airplane Repo and know anything about aviation, you may have been confused by the antics of the show’s stars, who appear to commit multiple felonies and bust all kinds of aviation regulations as they surreptitiously break into hangars in the middle of the night, make hasty aircraft repairs and then take off with GoPro cameras conveniently attached to the belly or tail for the benefit of viewers at home.

A number of pilots have taken to Twitter and Facebook to criticize the show for its negative portrayals of aviation, labeling it a farce. Popovich and Hill also dismissed such shows as presenting unrealistic portrayals of the repo profession. Nonpilot fans, meanwhile, eat it up, and the ratings have remained consistently high for these kinds of shows.

Airplane Repo actually started out in 2010 as a more true-to-life, unscripted documentary series. The first season starred Popovich as he traveled around the world repossessing business jets and airliners for big paydays. While that version of the program was well received by pilots, many viewers tuned out. It was also expensive to make as film crews traveled with Popovich and his team around the world over several months to bag an airplane.

“When we did the show originally, everything in it was actual footage of how we did a repo, from the planning session all the way through the execution of the repo,” Popovich says. “The second season they hired a new cast and they staged a lot of it. They wanted more drama; they wanted more fighting, more breaking into places.” The reality, he says, is that, by law, during a typical repo “you can’t breach the peace. What you see on TV, if I did that my client would get sued, and I’d get sued and probably arrested.”

The rebooted show, starring well-known repo pilots such as Kevin Lacy and Mike Kennedy, costs a fraction of the money to make and is more entertaining to a broader audience. And while some of the action on Airplane Repo is staged, the stories these pilots recount — like spending five days in a Mexican jail after landing an airplane at night after an electrical system failure, as Kennedy once did — are real. When it comes to flying unfamiliar airplanes in challenging places, these guys are the real deal.

One of the ever-present dangers for professionals like Popovich, Hill, Lacy and Kennedy, of course, is flying an airplane with an undisclosed mechanical problem. On a few of the high-value transactions he has dealt with, Popovich says he’s ordered borescope inspections of the jet engines to ensure there was no damage that might make the airplane unsafe to fly. Hill says he’s been tasked with flying airplanes that haven’t moved in years. And angry owners aren’t the only things to look out for. “I once picked up an airplane in Arizona where there were rattlesnakes crawling around in the wheel wells,” he says.

Repo Blues

What if you’re the person who has fallen behind on your loan payments and the bank is breathing down your neck? How should you react when you get that phone call from the bank or the repo man? You might be surprised by just how many rights you have in such a case. Your first step should be finding a good aviation attorney who has dealt with loan defaults and repossessions.

If you’re behind on your payments, you’ll probably know that already, unless somebody else handles your finances for some reason. The bank will begin the formal repossession process by sending notices in the mail and following up with phone calls to make sure you’re receiving the notices. The most important person during this part of the process isn’t the repo man; it’s the bank’s collection officer assigned to your case. Try to negotiate something with him or her first.

Once the bank hires a repossession agent, that’s when things get serious. The repo agent will start with some good, old-fashioned detective work to find out where your airplane is located. There are online databases and tracking services like FlightAware that repo men use, but if an owner doesn’t want his or her airplane found, it can be a long and arduous process to track it down.

After 60 days from the start of the default proceedings you’ll probably get a phone call from the repo agent or a bank representative with the bad news. At that point you have a choice. You can cooperate and agree to meet the repo agent, or you can dig in your heels and try to keep him or her from taking your airplane. If you elect to cooperate, part of that process will involve signing a release stating you understand you are in default and authorizing the bank to take back the asset.

Once the repo pilot takes the keys and has finished his inspections, he’ll be gone in a flash. But this isn’t the end of the story. You as the former owner legally still have 30 days to pay the bank and get your airplane back. Once that 30-day period ends, you’ll be given an additional 10 days’ warning to pay the bank or have the asset liquidated. At that point the bank has the legal right under the Uniform Commercial Code, Article 9, to go ahead and sell your airplane to the highest bidder.

The story still isn’t over here. If the bank sells your airplane for less than you owe on the note, you can be sure it will come after you for the difference.

Buying a Repo Airplane

What about buying an airplane that has been repossessed? Can somebody else’s financial misery land you a sweet deal? The federal government runs an auction website that includes seized aircraft, but there is no central online resource listing all repossessed aircraft for sale. Your best bet is to browse sites run by well-known repo firms and inquire about the airplanes you’re interested in. The banks almost always rely on brokers and agents to advertise and sell repossessed airplanes, although there’s a good chance the bank will be directly involved in the sale — especially setting the final selling price.

The longer a repossessed airplane has been sitting on the market, the more willing the bank will be to cut a deal. Once the bank accepts an offer to buy a repossessed airplane, the purchaser has 10 days to inspect it and make a decision as to whether to go ahead and buy it or not. You can inspect the interior and exterior, have a mechanic look it over, and examine the logbooks — pretty much anything you want short of actually flying it.

So can you save money buying a repossessed airplane?

“You’re going to get what you pay for,” Hill says. “If it’s a really good, marketable airplane that everybody wants, then it’s going to sell for a premium. Just because it’s a repossessed airplane usually won’t make any ­difference on a good airplane. A lot of people think they’re going to get a steal buying a repossessed airplane, but really that doesn’t happen.”

One thing to keep in mind is that most repossession pros would rather not have to take your dream airplane and post it on a website for sale. They genuinely feel bad when they show up to retrieve the keys. Hill says that when he becomes involved in a case he always tries to have empathy for the owner and give him or her as much time as the bank will allow before moving in.

“I’m there not because I want to be there but because I have to be there,” he says. “Most of the people I encounter are pretty sensible about it. I give them all the time in the world that I can right up until the point that the bank says go. But I try to help them keep their airplane if I can.”

And, yes, Hill says he still receives Christmas cards from people whose airplanes he’s repossessed.

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