Airplane Repo Man Kevin Lacey Knows "No One Flies For Free"
By: Eileen Marable
When I sat down to interview Kevin Lacey, one of the pilots featured in Airplane Repo and veteran aviator, I had a lot of questions. Things like, just how do you repo a plane? Is it scary? What’s the hardest part? It turns out those questions were really only conversation starters with a man who’s been around the globe capturing airplanes since 1975. As he’s quick to point out, “every situation is different,” and he’s been in a lot of “situations.”
As for how you capture a plane, it turns out some detective work is involved before you get it back in the air. Here’s how Kevin describes it:
“First you have to figure out where it is, second, you have to figure out if it is safe to fly or not. Then you get your hands on the aircraft and the records. You want to know if the asset's been flying, or has it been sitting in a hangar for two years, or worse yet, sitting outside in the elements? “
“If it’s been sitting then you start saying ‘Well I don’t know about that…we might have an issue here.’ A lot of times you just get an instinct. I am a certified Airframe & Powerplant Mechanic with Inspection Authorization on top of that, so with that experience and knowledge I can get a pretty good idea just wandering around the plane what condition it is in. You do a good look see. Is it leaking fuel? Is there a puddle of oil under the engines? Is it bleeding hydraulic fluid all over itself? But the most important thing to ensure its airworthiness is to get your hands on the aircraft records.”
That sounds simple right? But according to Kevin, there can be some shenanigans involved:
“Maintenance records are complete sets of records and log books put together for an aircraft from the day its built, every maintenance event is recorded so with the records you know its inspection and maintenance status. One of the biggest frustrations I have is when you have an aircraft belonging to John Doe who couldn’t afford to keep the airplane and he’s also kind of cheated the pilot. So the pilot gets his hands on the records and holds ‘em ransom inflicting a substantial diminution of value. He’ll track what happens to the plane and if it pops up for sale sometimes he’ll try to get $30K out of ya for the airplane records. That is illegal. The transfer of ownership of the airplane includes the transfer of the records.”
“Often times I’ll find myself in the battle with these pilots so you have to try and convince them that’s not the way to go about it. It depends on the legacy you want to leave behind. It’s about, “Do you want to be the guy that’s known as a cheat, liar, and a thief or as someone with a stellar reputation and someone who is upstanding and part of the aviation community?”
I asked Kevin if there was anything else that happens between when you feel confident you have the paperwork and the plane is airworthy, and when you can head back to your home base. His answer was simple:
“Yeah, someone’s going to show up and say ‘That’s my airplane.’ They don’t want to lose their asset so they will try to pick a fight.”
In other words, many times the person with the plane knows Kevin is coming and because planes are “movable assets,” a cat and mouse game begins to find the missing plane. Kevin describes one of his more infamous hunts:
“You know I chased a Canadair 604 Challenger down, we had initially located it in Ghana. I ended up capturing this one at Biggin Hill airport outside of London, I had the Emergency Terrorist Response team show up and the airspace around Heathrow and Gatwick shut down cause somebody made a call saying that someone is stealing a jet and has locked the pilot and owner in a closet… I had already gone to three different locations. I’d left the house here in Texas heading for Ghana and by the time I got to London, the airplane had moved to Geneva, so I went to Geneva instead. By the time I got to Geneva it moved three more times. I finally wound up catching it returning from Paris to London.”
I didn’t ask about the locked closet part, but it did get me starting to think about fear. What gets his heart racing? Kevin had to think about that.
“You know I think “Holy crap! How am I gonna answer that one?” I don’t have any idea how to answer these questions. You know, the anxiety is always high right before you make an initial assault on a target. But once you set yourself in motion all that goes away, you are going full tilt boogie and there aint no stopping until the mission is accomplished.
Being thrown in jail is always an interesting experience. Wondering whether you can get out, or whether your client will help you get out. Or whether a foreign country’s political nonsense will figure in it. Often times you don’t know whether you are over friendly territory.
When you ask what the scariest moment is, I can’t tell you that. I captured my first aircraft in 1975 so it’s been a long time and a lot of these things are blurs of the past though but I’ve managed to get a lot of them written down and I’m working on a book.”
Jail? Unfriendly foreign governments? Could there be more? Yep. There was one flight that he called “interesting”:
“I jumped in an airplane in South Texas that somebody else said was good to go. In the end one engine was barely running, and I lost the avionics – basically I had an electrical fire. I lost the turbocharger on one engine and the fuel pump on the other. Well, you know it was interesting; hindsight’s 20/20. Not to mention the plane had been sitting for a while and once I got airborne the air ducts began pelting me in the eyes with little particles of some kinda crud. So I’m flying trying to clear my eyes, thinkin’ what’s that smell, “oh crap, there is smoke coming from the circuit breaker panel” but it was hard to see as my eyes were scratchy and watering. Instinctively I “gang barred” the battery and alternator switches to the “OFF” position. When I did that, I realized that the right engine had been running on the electric fuel pump and not the engine driven pump as it should have and it starts to give up on me. The waste gate on the turbocharger on the left engine must be stuck as I am not getting all the manifold pressure I should get! I managed to get it back on the ground and I felt bad that I had to tell my guy at the bank that the best thing for this aircraft was to haul it off on a truck and trailer. I felt like I could’ve done him a favor by dropping it in the Bay for the insurance money, but I did not feel like going swimming in my boots that day.”
I wondered with all these interesting incidents whether anything really bothered him. There sure is –and it might surprise you:
“When you’re playing cat and mouse trying to catch up with a plane on the run, sometimes we’re (the repo men) are at the mercy of the airlines. You pretty much have to get a colonoscopy to get on an airline these days, and that’s probably the worst part of this end when your target can move faster.”
Listening to Kevin talk however, it’s clear that the airlines are just an annoyance and there is something consistent that really gets his goat. The cheaters in the aviation business and the lengths they’ll go to pocket some cash and run.
There are the owners that hold a banknote on a plane and lease it to another operator who pays them monthly fees; some dishonest folks pocket that money and default with the bank. The innocent people who were leasing the plane lose their money and their livelihood. There are also the owners that pay regular fees to maintenance companies to ensure when their extremely pricey engine maintenance checks are due they are paid up, which is a form of added equity in an aircraft. The dishonest ones will often transfer the engines with this added value along to another asset and a plane can be repo’ed with the wrong engines. The list goes on.
The bottom line is Kevin doesn’t want to take your plane, but if you are dishonest and cocky he will:
“Mind you I really, really do not like taking airplanes away from people who are honestly trying to make it. They are a pipeline patrol company, they’re crop dusters, or they’re charter airlines. I hate taking airplanes away from those folks. There could be any one of a number of reasons why things aren’t working out for them that is beyond their control, like the price of fuel. Like I said, sometimes these guys know you’re coming and they are good about it and they’ll give you a briefing on the airplane and hand you the keys. Some others it’s just a fight.
“Then there are those guys that when I turn around and look in the parking lot and see all these Mercedes Benz, Bentleys and whatnot and they’re talking about their third yacht three miles away in a harbor someplace, those guys that are taking it to the bank on their plane and those are the guys I really like taking the airplanes from.”
“There’s a lot of tricks the bad guys attempt to play out there; I was just recently talking to a client and I said it’s a recycle of the same old tricks. Same old stories and scams we’ve seen for years, just a different cast of characters. That cracks me up – some of these guys think they are pulling some new scam.”
When Kevin and I first started talking he told me the difference between a pilot and an aviator.
“A pilot,” he says “is the guy that flies sometimes on the weekend or has an airline job. An aviator is the guy that flies regular and is at the airport on a daily basis not because he has to be there but that is where he’s most comfortable.”
When he’s not on the hunt for a plane, that’s exactly where you’ll find Kevin. He’s at his home base in Texas flying a Taylorcraft airplane built in 1946 that he bought in 1976 and restored in 1984.
“I love that aircraft. It’s not fast or anything fancy. It’s covered in cloth and you have to turn a prop by hand to start it but it’s just a fun little airplane to fly around in.”
That’s a big difference from the Lear Jets and 747’s he’s wrangled, but it makes him happy. But for all those who are in trouble with the bank, when duty calls he’s philosophical about it and is ready to go:
“If you can write the check you can do pretty much what you want. But if you are going to write that check you better make sure you can afford all the other things that go along with it down the line. You can buy a million dollar airplane, but can you provide the care and feeding it requires – can you pay for maintenance, storage, fuel, insurance, and recurrent flight training?”
“No one flies for free.”
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