There are few people working in aviation who can say they are the star in their own television series. Then again, there are fewer who can say they have been shot at.
Nick Popovich, star of the ‘Airplane Repo’ television series and aircraft repossession expert, tells stories that make his competitors’ experiences sound comparatively sheltered. His reasoning for this is simple: “We go places other people won’t go.”
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Having served the global market for the past 30 years – repossessing commercial aircraft, private jets and helicopters – Nick Popovich is a true veteran of the aviation industry. Throughout his career he’s been involved with every stage of aircraft repossession, from managing the overall project to sitting in the pilot seat himself. “I don’t fly much anymore,” he says. “I just don’t have the time to stay calm.”
“We’ve faced it all. I’ve done seven days in Haitian jail, I’ve been deported from countries and I’ve had guns pulled on me.”
Having founded Sage-Popovich in Indiana, the ‘Airplane Repo’ man speaks with a slow drawl about the importance of staying calm and treating people with the utmost respect. Since Discovery Channel first commissioned the ‘Airplane Repo’ television series in the US in 2010, Popovich has been able to build a network of contacts that his competitors can only envy. “We have a list of 4,000 pilots who have qualified for certain types of aircraft,” he says. “We generally hire contract pilots, unless it’s an aircraft that we operate and then I’ll use my own crews.”
What does your job involve and how long have you been doing it for?
“We’re probably the oldest repossession company in the world, we’ve been doing it for 30 years and we’ve done over 1,500 repos – primarily commercial. In the last 15 years, we’ve moved more into the corporate and helicopter arenas and I run that operation as well as our parts liquidation company and our evaluation business.”
How many aircraft do you repossess on a yearly basis?
“I would say on a yearly basis it’s somewhere between 12 and 15. Lately we’ve been advising clients not to repossess if they don’t have to. As long as the aircraft is insured and being maintained, we suggest they leave it and work something out.”
Would you agree that repossession is a last resort?
“In most cases.”
When is it not?
“That would be when the insurance has been cancelled, or if there is not a qualified pilot on the plane, when we don’t see proper maintenance being done, or when we see the aircraft being cannibalised. In those cases, you can’t act fast enough.”
What is the process of repossessing an aircraft?
“Generally, with our client base, we already know the airplane because we’ve either done the appraisal, or an update, or an annual inspection. We’ll get a call telling us that it’s on the watch list and at that point we’ll probably go out and do an inspection. We’ll let the client know what’s going on with the asset, so that their work-out committee can make some good decisions.
“From there, we’ll get a call saying: ‘We want the airplane.’ Once we get that call, we assemble in my office as a team and a) we track the airplane and b) we talk about how we’re going to recover the records. Then we put together what we call our repo book, which is all of the documentation we’re going to need to legally repossess the aircraft.”
“We work out how we’re going to get to the airplane and how we’re going to get our crew back, insurance – the entire process. We put spotters on the ground to confirm the airplane’s location, and then generally jump on my airplane, fly out, pick up the airplane and bring it home.”
How easy is it to locate an aircraft?
“Generally speaking, it’s not that difficult – especially since the television show. We now have a database of around 11,000 people around the world that are spotters for us. With that database we can send an e-mail to them all in an instant and we’ve got people searching the world for it.”
Are there are examples where someone will go to a great length to hide an aircraft?
“Absolutely. We’ve been through that with several people. Our contacts, not only in our spotter network, but within air traffic control systems help us ID aircraft by their transponder codes. We have access to a ton of information that most people don’t have, because of our reputation and the number of years that we’ve worked with the US government and the FAA.”
Is it possible to hide an aircraft so it can’t be found?
“You can hide one for a while, but we will find it. We just had someone try to hide a helicopter up in the mountains in a little shed. It took us about two weeks but we eventually tracked it down.”
Once you’ve located the aircraft and the records, how does the repossession play out?
“Every case is different. Once we’ve got everything located, we load everybody onto my aircraft and we fly into the location. One team member will put the repossession notice on the airplane, while another goes in and works with the local FBO or whoever has control over the airplane to let them know that it’s being repossessed and to pay any outstanding parking or fees that may be due.
“A third member will then call the local police department and advise them that we’ve repossessed the airplane. At that point we ask for an incident report to confirm the time and date that the aircraft has been repossessed, and that it was repossessed without incident.
“Once that’s done, we notify the FAA or the local authority and then we’ll do a pre-flight, follow our flight plan and get out of there.”
How many people make up your team?
“We’ll have a team leader, who is responsible for the repossession, we’ll have a mechanic qualified on that type of aircraft, a flight crew and depending on the size of the aircraft, we may have a second mechanic, or what I call a fixer, who is there to smooth things over with the FBO and the police department, and to arrange anything that may be needed at the airport.”
What kind of resistance have you come up against?
“We’ve faced it all. I’ve done seven days in Haitian jail, I’ve been deported from countries and had guns pulled on me.”
How did you end up in jail if what you were doing was legal?
“We were looking for an airplane that was supposed to be in the Dominican Republic, but it ended up getting diverted to Haiti to avoid us picking it up. We finally located it and went to pick it up, but the Haitian airport operator said there were fees on the aircraft of $1 million.
“We were willing to pay the legitimate fees, but the aircraft had only been there three weeks and there was no way there could have been a $1 million bill. We tried to sneak the airplane out at night and got caught. It was the middle of the night. We used a pair of wire cutters to get through the fence. We had the local FBO there with an air card to start us, and he actually turned us in.”
Are there times when you fear for your safety?
“There are. It’s a lot less since 9/11 than it was prior to.”
Is risk assessment a big part of your job?
“That’s always part of our planning – how we’re going to effectively gain possession of the aircraft without putting anyone at risk.”
What’s an example of something that would ring alarm bells during the risk assessment stages?
“The type of client that we’re repossessing from is always a big alarm – whether it’s an individual or a corporation, a non-profit, an airline or a charter operator. An individual is usually your biggest risk.”
“The second thing we look at is where the airplane is, what airports it visits and what the risks are of coming out of that airport. You go through everything. And then of course there are countries where the risk is a little more intense.”
How should you behave on a repossession and what qualities should you have?
“We do primarily self-help repossession, which requires that you do not breach the peace. At all times you have to behave with the upmost professionalism. We believe you always have to be truthful. You need to treat people with respect because you never know what circumstances put them in that position. We always try to work with people and cause them the least amount of embarrassment. I think that being able to negotiate, speak with people and treat them with respect goes a long way to getting the job accomplished. You see people that go in yelling and screaming and it doesn’t solve anything.
“There are instances when you need to be more assertive, especially if an owner is trying to hide an airplane or if he’s playing games with logbooks. A lot people now are also sabotaging the airplane, by taking instruments out so it can’t be flown.”
The first season of ‘Airplane Repo,’ starring Nick Popovich, premiered on 12 December 2010. The second season, starring Ken Cage, Mike Kennedy, Kevin Lacey and Danny Thompson was aired on Discovery Channel on 11 July 2013 and ran for 10 weeks.