Sunday, March 14, 2021

Nick Popovich: I repossess airplanes from delinquent owners for a living; I've been held at gunpoint, thrown in a Haitian prison, and have tracked down $40 billion worth of aircraft

Nick Popovich has been working in aircraft repo for 40 years. 

Growing up in Northwest Indiana, I never took my father's advice — except once. I was 16 years old when he told me to get my pilot's license because it might come in handy one day. I did.

After graduating from high school, I went to Indiana University for a semester, but school wasn't for me. Instead, I started flying for Braniff International Airways. It turned out that wasn't for me either. I hated wearing a jacket and tie, and I felt more like a bus driver than a commercial pilot. When I got the chance to become a partner in a small Caribbean charter operation in St. Kitts, I jumped on it.

In 1979, a banker I knew called to collect on a favor I owed him. A Sri Lankan commercial airline had defaulted on two Boeing 747's, and he asked if I'd be willing to retrieve them as part of the bank's repossession process.

I agreed to take the job and tracked down the planes to an airport in Asia.

I called some pilot buddies of mine to help out. When we arrived, we told the airline employees we were there to inspect the planes to ensure they were in working order. The crew dutifully fueled up both aircraft and filed flight plans. The next thing they knew, we were gone — we just took the planes and high-tailed it out of there. It was a thrilling adventure, not to mention a lucrative one. The job paid $145,000. The banker said I could've charged three times as much. And that's all I needed to hear.

That same year my then wife and I launched Sage-Popovich Inc., which offers worldwide aircraft-recovery services.

Today, we are one of the world's largest aircraft-recovery specialists and have expanded our services to include asset management, charter services, and appraisal services.

Building a business in my line of work hasn't been easy.

Over the course of 40 years, I've stared down the barrel of a gun, been thrown in a Haitian prison, and had a death warrant issued in my name. Despite all this, we've managed to repossess $40 billion worth of aircraft and parts on every continent (except Antarctica).

Our business is based on my 120-acre ranch in Valparaiso, Indiana. Our clients all come by word of mouth because, to put it simply, we go places other people won't.

We advise our clients that repossession should be considered only as a last resort, after they've exhausted all other possibilities. If the aircraft are insured and well maintained, we recommend trying to work something out. But when a client is faced with no alternative, that's when we come in to get the aircraft and get out.

Some repo jobs have taken three years, others four hours.

We charge clients a flat fee. If we aren't able to find the aircraft, we don't get paid. Our lowest-paying job was to repo a single helicopter for $20,000, and our highest-paying one brought in $3 million. Since 1979, we've repossessed 1,986 aircraft. Our biggest job was for a bank client and involved securing 223 helicopters in 52 locations after a flight-training school was busted as a pyramid scheme and shut down. We got it done in 24 hours.

Airlines are in a lot of trouble during the pandemic because limited travel means a lot of planes are sitting around all over the world. We're seeing more bankruptcies than we've seen in the past decades.

Each repo case is different, but many aspects are the same.

Before we're called in to do a job, the bank has already notified the client that they've defaulted on payment and ideally tried to work something out. Yet if the insurance has lapsed or the aircraft aren't being maintained, there's no choice but to move in fast and get the aircraft back. That's when we enter the picture.

Once a client calls us for a job, the first thing we do is get our team together and come up with a recovery plan.

We begin by researching the aircraft and going through our records to determine what we already might know about it and its condition.

Then we work with scouts to help track its whereabouts, because in some cases the planes are hidden to avoid being repossessed. Sometimes they're hidden in a private hangar. One time we found a helicopter hidden inside a shed. We have a database with thousands of people worldwide who essentially act as spotters for us for hidden planes.

Ever since I starred in the Discovery Channel's "Airplane Repo" TV series in 2015, our database has grown exponentially. We've got eyes and ears all over the world looking out for us.

Our repo plans are organized with military-like precision.

Once we know for sure where the aircraft is and its condition, we plan out each step of the recovery process, including where we need to go, how to get our crew there and back, and how much fuel we need. We also have contact numbers for the local police, hospitals, and the Federal Aviation Administration.

If we don't have a court order, the process is known as self-help repossession, which is what we primarily do in our business. In these instances, we slap a repossession notice on the aircraft and then contact the local police to request an incident report. An officer arrives to file a report detailing the date and time the aircraft was repossessed. Once they file the report, technically the plane is ours. We follow up with the airport personnel and pay any outstanding fees, notify the FAA, file a flight plan, and head on out.

The Sage-Popovich core staff consists of 45 people covering everything from operations, mechanics, and flight coordination to sales and accounting. On top of our team, we have a database of 12,000 pilots we contract with.

A good repo pilot is willing to do what it takes to get the job done without putting anyone a risk. Safety is key. If they are flexible and can do all that, they can essentially name their price.

For repo jobs, we have a team lead, a mechanic, two pilots, and a fixer whose job is to ensure everything goes smoothly between us, the police, and the airport officials or fixed base operators, who handle private planes' landing strips.

Once we repossess the plane and get it to a secure location, we assess the aircraft.

We take note of any damage or discrepancies and then follow the owner's wishes, which may involve contracting to sell the plane at their facility or at public auction.

There are always mixed emotions when we have to repossess a commercial aircraft, because it's like the ultimate death knell for a business when you take their plane away. It's a lot different from the feeling when you repossess a private plane from some billionaire in West Palm Beach who defaulted on payments and is hiding from you. That can sometimes be cause for a little celebration, but there are no hard feelings.

You'd be surprised at how many people we've repossessed aircraft from who ended up becoming friends or business associates. The aviation world is a tight-knit community. Everyone has a job to do, and in most instances there are no grudges. It's all just part of a day's work.


  1. Discovery embarrassingly showed a repo episode where a Lear Jet was jump started from 9 Volt transistor radio batteries. Cued up in link below for your entertainment.

    1. Yeah I watch that series which recently has new episodes. It is so corny with the over dramatization. But it's one of those corny shows where you just can't take your eyes off of it. Especially if you are an aviator or aviation buff. I do enjoy the stints when Nick is on however. Specifically revolving around his team and the logistics involved of an actual repo.