Salon's got a great feature on Nick Popovich, the "Learjet repo man," a pilot who specializes in repo'ing airplanes from deadbeat drug lords in the jungles of South America, heavily armed American white-supremacist gangs, and collapsed pyramid-scheme pilot schools. Some of the planes he flies are barely airworthy, neglected by their owners, and once, back in Papa Doc's Haiti, he didn't get the plane off the ground (instead he was captured, tortured and imprisoned, only gaining his freedom once Papa Doc was overthrown).
These days, Popovich is fielding assignments as fast as he can handle them. "We've got a lot of business right now," he says. "We recently recovered planes from Okun and Nadel." Popovich is referring to Edward Okun and Arthur G. Nadel, two Bernie Madoff-manqués that have been accused of stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from unsuspecting clients who thought they were safely investing their money ($300 million in Nadel's case, the largest alleged hedge fund fraud in Florida history). Among the booty that Popovich was hired to return were two Gulfstream IIs and a Learjet…
Using his European scouts, Popovich tracked one plane in Milan; the other was sitting on the tarmac near Terminal One at Charles DeGaulle Airport. The MD-81 was covered in official-looking documentation written in French, so Popovich just ripped everything off and hopped in. Big mistake. The airport cops stopped him as he was taxiing and threw him in a cell overnight. The next day, a French magistrate had handcuffs slapped on Popovich and ordered him returned to Chicago. "I was more determined than ever to grab those damn planes," he says. "You push me, I push back harder."
A few weeks later he snuck back into the country, convinced a captain with an Air Afrique fuel bus to fill up Arpel's Boeing and flew it out. But the Milan plane was trickier. The engine was behaving erratically, and no sane person should fly a bird with a hinky engine. Popovich had a replacement engine in Munich (engine-swapping is a common occurrence in the business) and the only way to get it would be to make the 50 minute flight and pray.