When bankrupted airlines, corrupt dictators, and broke money managers stop paying for their jumbo jets, expect to see Nick Popovich — the world’s top airplane repo man.
Nick Popovich woke up with two black eyes, several missing teeth, and no shoes or wallet. His face was swollen “to the size of a watermelon” and he was pretty sure he had a few broken ribs. To make matters worse, he was in a Haitian prison.
How Popovich ended up there was a long story. He’d come to Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s hard-bitten capital, to track down a Boeing 720 jet owned by a small Caribbean airline. The company had skipped on a few payments and their lender, a U.S. bank, had hired Popovich to repossess it. Though the plane was only worth $600,000, the airport manager in Port-au-Prince demanded a million for “service fees.” Popovich tried to make a late night getaway without paying, but a jeep full of kids with machine guns stopped him on the runway and, in his words, “beat the crap out of me.”
Popovich might still be in that prison today, if not for some fortuitous timing. Just a few weeks into his prison stay, there was a military coup in Haiti and President Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier was overthrown. Port-au-Prince erupted into anarchy, and one of the rioters ran into the prison and opened all the cell doors. In the ensuing chaos, Popovich made his escape with the other prisoners. He walked several miles barefoot to a Sheraton hotel, called a pilot friend with a Learjet in the U.S. to fly out and save him, and then stole a courtesy van to get to the airport. “I showed up in Florida with no shoes and no passport,” he laughs. “But I was alive.”
It’s easy for Popovich to laugh about it now, as he lounges in an airplane hangar in Joliet, Illinois, puffing on a cigar as big as a baby’s arm. Popovich is a repo man who deals exclusively in planes, helicopters, and private jets. The harrowing ordeal in Haiti was over thirty years ago, and he’s had no shortage of misadventures and near misses since then. Popovich estimates that he and his team—he has a database of 4,000-plus pilots ready to fly for him on a moment’s notice—have repossessed over 1,800 fixed and rotary planes since 1979 and made millions in revenue, while somehow managing to repeatedly cheat death. In a field with very little competition—Popovitch claims there are maybe four other plane repo companies in the world—he’s become the most successful guy in a career that didn’t technically exist until he started doing it.
Popovich never planned on repoing planes for a living. He got his pilot’s certificate when he was just 16, because his father told him it “might come in handy.” In the late 70s, he co-founded a small airline called Liberty, but soon learned it wasn’t his cup of tea. “I was bored out of my mind,” he says. But then he got a call from the banker friend looking for a favor. “Somebody stopped making payments on their Boeing 747s and parked it in Sri Lanka,” Popovich says. “My friend asked me if I’d go get them. I’d never done anything like that before, but what the hell, it sounded like a real adrenaline rush.”
Popovich brought back the plane, and after realizing the number of zeros on his paycheck amounted to much more than anything he was earning at the time, decided it might be time for a career change. “My mind was made up,” he says. “This is what I wanted to do with my life.”
For the past four decades, Popovich and his team have repossessed planes on every continent—an average of 12 to 15 per year, with planes valued at anywhere between $1-$30 million—and they’ll go just about anywhere as long as the price is the right.
A plane repo isn’t all that different from a car repossession. Somebody takes out a loan to buy a fancy mode of transportation, then realizes he can’t afford it and stops paying their lender. That’s when Popovich is brought in to retrieve the asset. He charges between $25,000 and $250,000, depending on the size of the plane, the danger involved— and how much he likes you.
More than half of the planes Popovich repossesses are from certificated airlines, either small charter companies or commercial airlines on the verge of bankruptcy. The rest are either corporate or personal plane owners who invested beyond their means. The clients are almost always banks, like Transamerica and Citibank, looking to cut their losses on a bad investment.
Popovich’s business ebbs and flows, depending on the economy. When times are good and people can pay their bills, he doesn’t get as many calls. During the 2008 recession, business was booming. But lately, despite a strong economy in 2017, Popovich says he’s been busier than usual. “It’s been picking up,” he says. “It’s the opposite of what we usually see. People are too confident.”
With confidence in the economy at an all-time high, he says, consumers—or at least the type of consumer who’ll buy a personal jet because he doesn’t want to fly commercial—have peaked. “They can buy a plane for cheap, but didn’t realize how expensive it is to operate,” Popovich says. “It can cost three million a year to own a pla , if you factor in insurance, fuel, and maintenance.” When the money runs out—and it always runs out—Popovitch will be there to relieve them of their bad decisions.
In most cases, Popovich says, the hardest part of a repo job is just making sure you show up with all the paperwork. If you’ve got the right documentation and lease terminations, nobody will usually try to stop you. But every once in awhile, you get a pissed off hedge fund trader with an Uzi—a real scenario Popovich once encountered.
He has a seemingly endless supply of movie-worthy stories. The only place he won’t return is the Democratic Republic of Congo, in central Africa. “We repo’d the president’s G2 jet while his wife was shopping in Switzerland,” Popovich says. “He wasn’t really happy about that. There’s still a death warrant out for me there, so I don’t want to take any chances.”
He’s repossessed planes from New York mobsters, Ponzi scheme money managers (like Arthur G. Nadel, who fleeced investors out of $162 million), and well-armed white supremacists in South Carolina, who held a gun to his head and threatened to “blow my fucking head off” when he tried to repossess their Gulfstream II jet. (Popovich ignored their warnings and took the plane anyway. One of his rules is, “If a guy says he’s going to shoot you, he’s not going to shoot you.”)
He was also put in chains after trying to repossess a Boeing MD-81 from French jewel magnate François Arpels, who had launched his own charter service called Fairlines but didn’t pay off the planes. Popovich called to try and work out a deal, but Arpels purportedly scoffed at him, saying “I’m Francois Arpels and this is Paris. You will never find the plane.” Popovich responded with, “Frankie, it’s all but gone.” (Arpels “hated that I called him ‘Frankie’,” Popovich says.)
Popovich soon found the Boeing parked at the Charles de Gaulle airport, but ignored a judge’s orders taped to the cockpit, grounding the plane because of unpaid fuel bills. He was stopped by airport cops before he could take off. After spending the night in a cell, he told a French magistrate that: “It was written in French, so I didn’t think it was important.” He was escorted to his flight back to the U.S. like a serial killer. “My wrists were shackled to my waist, and my ankles were connected with chains,” he says. “They walked me through the terminal like that, and then put me on the plane with a cop standing behind me, with everybody looking at me. In the middle of the flight, I stood up and said, ‘You kill one fucking Frenchmen and everybody makes a big deal of it!’”
Now 65, he’s not as regularly in mortal danger as he once was, but his job still has the crackle of rogue excitement. His hanger is buzzing with activity, as full-time employees and freelance pilots refuel his Hawker jet for an upcoming flight: Popovich has two planes always at the ready, a Hawker 700A and a Challenger 601-3A/ER that can cross the Atlantic. Popovich sits at a table right in the middle of the action, oblivious to the roar of jet engines, and flips through a big folder filled with info on his loyal and pending clients.
Popovich runs his company—it’s still called “Sage-Popovich Inc.” even though Sage, one of his ex-wives, no longer co-runs the business —and he doesn’t need to be the guy throwing himself into every dangerous situation as much as he used to. He’s got a database of several dozen pilots, many of them full-time employees at commercial airlines, who are happy to repossess jets for Popovich during their vacation time. That pilot who welcomed you aboard your last business trip might very well have been counting the days until he got to fly to Cambodia and sneak onto a 747 in the dead of night.
“I get all this experience, and I don’t have to pay for the training,” Popovich laughs. “I’ve got guys who work for all the major airlines, and guys who are retired and just can’t live with their wives. There’s one guy, he calls me all the time and says, ‘I don’t care where you send me. I need to get away from her. You don’t even have to pay me, just please, fucking send me somewhere!’”
He’s expanded his business to include more than just repossession. The firm sells airplane parts, offers airline management consulting, and runs a charter operation, including free flights for post 9/11 military veterans. But repossession is still their number one service. While Popovich could easily stay in his hangar, counting the money that comes pouring in, he still enjoys the thrill of the hunt. Sometimes he’ll do a repo “just because it’s going to be fun,” he says.
Just a few months ago, he was hired to pick up a Hawker in West Palm Beach, Florida, and the owner took off before they could get a court order. “He called the client and said, ‘When your guy wants to learn how to repo an airplane, tell him to give me a call.’ That pissed me off.” Popovich put the word out with his numerous airport contacts, and soon learned that the plane had been spotted in Fairhope, Alabama. Popovich flew down and grabbed it within a few hours. “The first thing I did was get on the guy’s airphone and called him up,” Popovich says. “I said, ‘Hey, guess what? This is Nick Popovich. Turns out I don’t need your repoing course, cause I’m sitting on your airplane and you’re paying for this call.’”
Earlier this year, Popovich was given one of the highest honors of his profession, the Living Legends of Aviation award. It’s like the Pulitzer Prize for pilots, with a very small and iconic list of honorees including Buzz Aldrin, Richard Branson, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, and Bob Hoover. In a ceremony last January at the Golden Globes Ballroom in Beverly Hills, Popovich received the rare accolade in an audience that included Harrison Ford and John Travolta.
Popovich scoffs at the idea of retiring. “I’m in this business till I die. I’ve got four ex-wives—I’m working till I’m dead,” he jokes. “I don’t want to retire, but I’ve got grandkids now. I kinda like being the guy who says, ‘Hey kids, let me take you to Paris and show you where your grandpa was in jail’.”