Courtesy of Sage-Popovich.

A Glimpse Inside the Wild World of Airplane Repossession (What Does it Take to Be a Bounty Hunter in the Sky?)

LONDON – Despite the many modern conveniences of everyday life, there are still trackers among us. These skilled observers are not looking for broken branches or the depth of heel tracks in the dirt, but for tie-downs and hangar rentals. Their prey isn’t a feast for the night, but a $2.2 million dollar Piper Malibu sitting alone on the ramp.

This is essentially the life of the airplane repossession man. On the Discovery series Airplane Repo, there are often fistfights, arguments, last-minute repair jobs, and quick getaways, but in real life, the job is more Sherlock Holmes than Dog the Bounty Hunter. An airplane repo man is generally a former professional pilot, who possesses a combination of book and street smarts.

Typically, the job goes like this: a bank or loan agency will contact an airplane repossession company and provide as many details as they can about a missing or delinquent airplane. Then, through research and paperwork, the company will begin to search for the missing planes. Sometimes, it’s a simple phone call. Other times, it might literally mean chasing runaway pilots around the globe. 

The Super Repo Man


Enter Nick Popovich, a.k.a. the “super repo man.” Popovich, a former commercial airplane pilot, was initially approached by a few bankers who knew him. At the time, the bank had loaned a company enough cash to buy a few Boeing 747s, but the client had stopped making payments, and perhaps worse, stopped maintaining the airplanes.

Nick Popovich (Courtesy of Sage-Popovich)

The bankers needed someone in a hurry, or else the planes would require even more work to make them flyable again. Popovich agreed to give it a go. In this first gig, he followed the airplane to an airport in Asia by tracking hangar rental slips, fuel purchase receipts, and records from the Federal Aviation Administration. When he found the hideout, he rounded up a crew to help him legally steal back the jumbos.

On site, he explained to the current employees that his team was simply there to perform an inspection. They said they needed to make sure the planes were airworthy. Their fake test involved fueling up the planes, firing up the engines, and filing flight planes to Australia. “By the time they figured it out, we were gone,” joked Popovich about his first undercover job.

In Australia, they refueled and continued the journey to Mojave where the bank had arranged storage for the prize. After the heist, he collected his check. “That paid a lot more than I expected,” he said. “I decided there was a business there.” After this initial sting, Popovich – who looks more like a bouncer than your typical entrepreneur – gave himself the title, “Aircraft Repossession Specialist.”

Earn a Big Payday


Despite never having finished college, his skillset helped him build a net worth of just over $2 million (the team earns 6-10% of the resale value per plane). Although he sounds more like the Dos Equis most-interesting-man-in-the-world than a typical tycoon, the Bentley-driving, cigar chain-smoker is simply a pilot who saw an intriguing opportunity and took it.

Cockpit (Courtesy of Laurent Perren)

Since 1979, the super repo man has repossessed more than 1,800 planes and helicopters, which represent a $40 billion dollar portfolio of assets. He’s mastered legal theft, taught others to use master keys and propeller locks, and worked with countless accomplices like fly-boys, grease monkeys, and hired muscle to get these jobs done. It’s also crucial, given the circumstances, that an aircraft mechanic is there to make sure the plane will safely get into the aira.

After building an Oceans 11-style team, the repo man needs to have the knowledge to fly a private jet, a 747, a twin engine prop plane, a float plane, a traffic helicopter, or a simple crop duster. If the heist leader can’t fly a particular plane, someone on the team should know how to fly it. Then, of course, there’s the chance that you get within inches of your prey and it moves from Texas to Brazil in a single night (and then to New York the following day). Then, one must consider state and international laws for every location involved.

The Danger Zone 


It’s far from easy work and often ends up being quite dangerous. In 1986, for example, the crew was seized by Haitian troops who shot at and literally bayoneted the engine of a small plane Popovich was there to collect. The plane, which technically belonged to a bank in Port-au-Prince, ran up a $1 million dollar storage bill thanks to the temporary owners, which the bank never agreed upon in the first place.

Popovich, caught in the middle, was actually thrown into a third world prison with dirt floors. For seven days, he sat alone with his thoughts. Luckily, he was released thanks to a coincidence: Dictator “Baby Doc” Jean-Claude Duvalier was overthrown. “If that didn’t happen, I’d probably still be there today,” he said. “They just opened all the jail cells.”

COURTESY OF SAGE-POPOVICH

This wasn’t the only time someone pointed a gun in his face, but he seems to have somewhat of a stoic philosophy about the dangers of such a life. “If it’s your time, it’s your time,” he said. “Fortunately, no one’s been willing to pull the trigger over an aircraft.” Again, this is where the Discovery series often goes off the deep end, to cater to fans, but there are dangers involved, hence the big payday.

In addition to money, the legal thief has also earned a handful of surprising accolades. As the founder of Sage-Popovich, he was inducted into the Living Legends of Aviation exhibit, alongside Buzz Aldrin, Richard Branson, Elon Musk, Harrison Ford, and Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger. “It was a little strange being there with astronauts,” joked a humble Popovich. “I’ve never flown to the moon. I’ve never landed a plane on the Hudson River. I was looking around the room wondering how I got there.”

Unique Set of Skills


What’s perhaps less obvious about this line of work is the greater understanding one needs to complete these types of jobs in exotic locations. Clearly, one needs to understand geopolitics, international finance, commercial trends, team communication, extensive coordination, and manage to do all of these things knowing there’s at least some chance of being shot at or tossed in jail.

Photo from AOPA.

If all of this sounds appealing, then it’s possible you’re a rebel right the gig. However, there are also other ways in which you could get involved with airplane repo without being the person in the danger zone. 

First of all, there’s a ton of paperwork involved. Sure, this isn’t the most exciting part of the job, but it is necessary. For each job, there are registry codes, purchase paperwork, flight logs, and other ad-hoc assignments to solve the mystery of where the next big payday might be, along with paperwork to get the repossessed plane back in the agreed-upon location. 

Since these jobs involve repossessing an airplane, there are countless reports to explain the situation with each individual transaction. These are the unglamorous parts of the job, but necessary for this line of work. Not everyone can be Jack Bauer, and Jack needs Chloe O’Brian to get his job done. Thanks to his team, people like Popovich can get the job done. 

Word-of-Mouth Reputation


COURTESY OF SAGE-POPOVICH

With all of this in mind, the marketing for this type of job essentially works by word-of-mouth. The company has repossessed planes on nearly every continent. While working a bankruptcy job in Alaska, an attorney in Texas contacted the team thanks to an unsecured creditor listed in the Alaskan case. “We got quite a reputation for doing what nobody else could do.”

Through this unusual journey, Popovich has proven that a college education isn’t everything, but having an entrepreneurial spirit, choosing to take risks, and seeing opportunities when they’re presented to you could literally change your life. In fact, all of this really started with his father, a man who inspired a 16-year-old boy to take flying lessons and make something of himself. “It might come in handy,” his father told him.

Despite being a humble man with the mouth of a sailor, the super repo man has not only created a niche for himself but helped create an entirely new occupation for pilots struggling to find work in an ever-changing economy. As he stood alongside one-name icons like Buzz, Elon, and Sully, perhaps Popovich represents the spirit of all airplane repo men, proving there truly can be honor among thieves.

References


  • Nick Popovich: https://living-legends-of-aviation.myshopify.com/pages/nick-popovich
  • Nick Popovich: https://www.aviationpros.com/aircraft/news/21152316/nick-popovichs-valpobased-global-aircraft-repo-business-has-soared-to-great-heights
  • Job Description: https://www.jobmonkey.com/uniquejobs/airplane-repossession/
  • Airplane Repo article: https://www.flyingmag.com/aircraft/ownership/airplane-repo-true-stories/
  • Commercial Source: https://www.aircraftcompare.com/blog/how-to-become-airplane-repo-agent/

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