From daredevils to stunt pilots, the cast and crew of Airplane Repo do much more than just repo airplanes. Male Standard talked with Ken Cage, Heather Sterzick, Kevin Lacey and Mike Kennedy. Learn how they got their start, their most dangerous stunts and more as we get behind the scenes with the crew from Airplane Repo.
Make sure to catch the season finale of Airplane Repo tonight on Discovery.
How did you first get into the REPO business?
I bought the business with a childhood friend of mine, Bob Weeks. Before that I did high risk collections for Chrysler and we would put non-performing car loans out for repossession. I also was Director of Security for a Hospital in Philadelphia and did International Banking for JP Morgan.
How did the idea for the show come about?
I was featured on Inside Edition and then on the front page of The Wall Street Journal. I was then featured on NBC, CBS, Fox, CNN, BusinessWeek, Financial Times and so on. I was even featured in a book, The High Beta Rich. From there, me and my company become pretty popular with producers.
What’s the most dangerous event you’ve experienced while on the job?
Getting hit by a car, an FBO manager playing chicken with us. It’s generally a violent reaction to us or a mechanical issue with the airplanes that cause the most danger.
What’s the most difficult part of running a business while also shooting a television show?
The show requires an incredible amount of time and focus. There are also deadlines for the show, which makes the time requirements even more intense. All this while trying to keep an eye on the business. It was incredibly difficult but fortunately Bob and my office manager Glenda were able to keep things moving this season.
What does a typical day look like for you? How many hours per day do you work on average?
I get started by 6:15 AM every day. I work until 6 PM unless I am coaching one of my teams, then I stop at 5 or so. I then take a break, eat with the family or coach, then go back for another hour or two. When I am on cases, it is non-stop until I am done. I usually take the earliest flights out each time, so I often leave the house at 5 AM, fly somewhere then travel in the new town to repo, transport and so on before I finish. There have been many trips that have required over 24 consecutive hours to finish.
How do you handle the stress?
Coaching my kids. I have always been very athletic and still play hockey and baseball when I can. I coach over 100 different kids per year in baseball, basketball and soccer and that is my way of getting away and doing something I love.
How do you balance life and work?
This is the toughest thing for me, because my family means everything. I have missed so much by doing the job and even doing the show, so it is very difficult. Scheduling things, such as games, makes it easier for me. Mostly it is being aware of the time I am spending at work and just breaking away.
All great entrepreneurs experience failure in their lives. Describe a failure you’ve experienced and what you did to overcome?
Well this is a cut-throat nasty business. People take shots at you from all angles. We had a bank decide they didn’t want to use us anymore and it was for all of the wrong reasons. Someone was trying to make more profit than they should. As a result a big part of our business was gone. What we did was determine new ways to make money. So we have gotten some contracts with some other entities, but more importantly we have gotten more involved with retail brokerage of airplanes and boats. Our marketing plan is simple – What other broker is advertising their company for an hour per week on the greatest network ever on television? Seriously, that has helped us. We are also getting ready to open a charter business to complement the other things we are doing.
What are the top three lessons you’ve learned in business?
1 – There is no crying in business. Honestly, nobody cares if you feel you were wronged or if you are struggling. 2 – Results are the only thing that really matters and 3 – No matter what situation, treating people with respect and dignity is always the right thing to do.
What’s your Male Standard?
Do something today that helps you be better tomorrow.
How does it feel to be the rookie on Airplane Repo?
To be honest it was pretty intimidating at first – there has been A LOT of lessons learned, but I’m making progress. Every repo I learn something I take to the next repo and do my best to impress Kevin on my new skills.
You’ve teamed up with Kevin Lacey to learn the ropes of repo. However, your first encounter was not too great. What happened?
He showed up at the airport I was managing and I had him arrested for trying to swipe a client’s plane. It’s funny because if it were anyone else they would hate me for it – when I reflected upon that day with Kevin he said he respected the fact that I stood my ground. That’s the kind of guy he is – it’s just business!
What has it been like to break into this “boys club.”?
I’ve spent my entire life breaking into the boys club so it wasn’t anything new for me. I played football on the boys team, competed in powerlifting and was deployed as a tactical air traffic controller. I’m used to working with boys and enjoy surprising them when I kick their butts.
In addition to being a stunt pilot, you also have a military background. Can you share more about this?
I served in the Army for 5 years as an air traffic controller. South Korea for two years as a tactical air traffic controller – clearing drop zones, setting up tactical air traffic equipment, and repelling from helicopters. I volunteered for Iraq and deployed by myself – there I set up air corridors to prevent friendly fire and coordinated Army air assets countrywide.
How did you become a stunt pilot?
I started doing aerobatics about two years ago and immediately became addicted to it. There is nothing better than having a tough day at the office and taking it out on the sky. I just started competing and am searching for a scholarship or a sponsorship that will allow me to take it to the next level.
What’s the most exciting thing you’ve experienced while on the job?
The most exciting repo was definitely my first repo with Kevin where I served as a decoy so that he could repo a Stearman. I asked the debtor to take me for a lesson in one of his Stearman while Kevin swiped the other one. As we returned from our lesson, Kevin was taxiing out with the repo’d plane! The debtor and I ended up in a full-on car chase. I haven’t been that nervous since I was getting shot at in Iraq!
What’s the most dangerous?
Definitely a fuel imbalance Kevin and I had on a Learjet that forced us to descend through a thunderstorm in attempt to make an emergency landing.
What’s your Female Standard ?
Don’t be pension-ate…be passionate about what you do to make a living.
You started as a mechanic with dreams of becoming a pilot. How did you make the transition?
Actually, you have that backwards – sitting in the third floor study hall class at Carter High School (in South Dallas), I could see Red Bird Airport from the window. I always wondered who the people in those airplanes are and where they were going. Occasionally, I would ride over there on my bicycle and ride up and down between the hangars. Sometimes people would chase me off, but other times, people would invite me into their hangars.
During the summer between my junior and senior year of high school, I began taking flying lessons. After one of those lessons, my flight instructor put on some coveralls and grabbed some tools and went out to work on one of the airplanes. Curious, I tagged along and helped out as best I could. It was interesting learning how to time the magnetos and perform a compression check on the engine, but that was as far as my maintenance desire went at the time.
In the fall of my Senior year, there was this dedication ceremony out in the middle of the prairies of North Texas that is now known as DFW International Airport. I had never been that close to so many cool airliners in my life. Most memorable was the Concorde, then there was this big orange Boeing 747 known as Fat Albert (Braniff), and a shiny new looking Boeing 707 with AA on the side of it. There was a host of other airplanes and dignitaries. It was on that day, in 1973 that I set out to become an airline pilot.
I earned my pilots license the year I graduated from High School (1974) and enrolled in a school for advanced flight training. Unfortunately, when I arrived at the school, they claimed they did not have the resources to train me for my advanced ratings.
Reluctant to return home empty handed, I was directed to the schools other campus where I was enrolled into an aircraft maintenance training program. I attended night school and was lucky enough to find a job during the day at a little airport just west of town. The training at school went hand in hand with the experience I was getting at my job as a mechanics helper. As an added bonus, I was able to fly airplanes on a regular basis.
In addition to the maintenance experience I was gaining, I also ferried airplanes all over the place. Whether it was a flight to the avionics shop, a maintenance test flight, or ferrying customer airplanes before and after a scheduled maintenance event , I had many opportunities to fly airplanes and build flight time that I could not otherwise afford to pay for out of my own pocket. I never had much money, and there was no family fortune with which I could draw upon.
I moved back to Texas after earning my Airframe & Powerplant mechanics license and continued to earn flight time and experience towards my advanced flight ratings by working on and maintaining airplanes. Finding a pilot job was very difficult as this was just after our military had pulled out of Viet Nam and there were plenty of military pilots looking for jobs. I was routinely told that “Pilots are a dime a dozen, good mechanics are hard to come by”, or “We are hiring pilots to fly airplanes here, not mechanics”. Then came the excuses that I needed some kind of experience with a particular type of jet.
It was really frustrating, but I finally got a break as a co-pilot mechanic on a Cessna Citation. After several years of flying corporate jets, I began trying to get hired by the airlines, but it seemed that a career with the airlines was not in the cards for me.
I am ok with that, knowing that I tried my best. In hindsight, I think I can say that I have lived a pretty exciting life and would have probably been bored to death flying for the airlines.
How did you enter the world of repo? Is everyone cut out for this?
September 1975, the Boss threw me a wad of pick keys and told me to head out to eastern Oklahoma, and find a particular airplane and bring it home. I thought that was an unusual request as he usually told me exactly where the airplanes that I was to ferry were located. On this airplane, he did not even know which airport it was at.
I saw the opportunity to repo airplanes as a chance to fly a variety of aircraft, add more flighthours and experience to my log book and get paid for doing it. My maintenance background and ability was a big selling point, in that I could find a way to bring airplanes home that others couldn’t. It was a win-win situation for me. After all, I needed that experience in order to advance my goal of becoming an airline pilot.
Back in the 80’s and 90’s I had a very difficult time finding help in repo-ing airplanes. Even during the hard economic times and high pilot unemployment, it seemed pilots were afraid they would get this reputation, or somehow their repo efforts would end up in a FAA file somewhere and ruin any opportunities for career advancement.
The other 10 – 15% of repo’s come with mechanical difficulties, angry owners, and other unusual situations that most people are not versatile enough to cope with. Some say they can, but soon realize that this type of job is not for them.
Please share the scariest thing you’ve experienced while shooting the show?
First let me begin by saying that the airport, hangars, and the tarmac is my natural habitat. I am perfectly at home in this environment and am aware of all the hazards associated with this environment.
As if swiping airplanes isn’t difficult enough, now enter a camera crew that has no airport experience and I have to assume responsibility for their safety as well.
I will not go into specifics, but I have been very scared on 3 occasions for the safety of the crew. When it becomes a safety issue, I simply have to say no.
You’ve said, detainment and jail don’t frighten you. Can you share a story where this almost happened?
Where this almost happened? How about being arrested by US Customs after arriving in the US in a repossessed aircraft unannounced and with none of the required paperwork.
Or maybe being arrested in the little town of Belem in the state of Para in northern Brazil for allegedly stealing airplanes and spare parts and trying to smuggle them out of the country. They seize your passport and will not let you leave the country. I guess they call that house arrest, but when you finally win that battle and they give you back your passport and then try to fine you for overstaying your visa.
Or maybe being caught airside at an international airport in an Eastern African country and being deported, only to return two days later to complete the mission.
The list goes on and on.
Airplane repo is bringing in Heather Sterzick as your apprentice on the show. Please describe your relationship?
Heather and I get along just fine. We share the same passion for flying and excitement and have many mutual friends. We often find ourselves at the same airshows and other aviation related events. I am pretty sure she will try just about anything at least once.
Having said that, it is also very important that I only use her in a capacity that is comparable to her current level of experience, so I have to consider the circumstances carefully before I bring her along. I certainly do not want her or anybody else to get hurt.
What advice do you have for somebody who wants to become a stunt pilot?
Flying aerobatics is a very serious business. Find a qualified and experienced instructor and take lessons. Fly and practice as often as possible, and never exceed your limitations or experience level.
Some maneuvers are straight forward and simple to perform, while others can get complicated real quick, and recovery technique is very important. One minor mistake can cost you your life.
What’s your Male Standard?
Don’t waste your time looking back, other than to try and identify your mistakes, you might miss an opportunity that is right in front of you. If you are waiting for something to turn up, try starting with your shirtsleeves.
You’re a real life “Most Interesting Man in The World.” What advice do you give to others who want to live an adventurous life?
Know your limitations. Don’t get in over your head. People call me crazy for many things that I do but I know exactly where my skill level is and what I can handle. Even having said that you still have to accept that you are going to get banged up now and then. My recent crash is a good example. My tires weren’t coming up to temperature properly on the racetrack. I could feel they weren’t sliding in a smooth predictable manner and I knew why. I should have loaded the bike back up in the truck but I wanted to finish out the day so I just backed off my pace instead. It was a poor decision and it cost me.
What’s your favorite part about flying? – How did you get into the repo business?
I love to fly for the obvious reasons, the sensation of flight, the speed, the sights, defying gravity all that stuff but the places it has taken me probably top the list. I have seen parts of the world I know I would have never had the opportunity to experience if it wasn’t for aviation. Landing in the snow covered Fjords of Greenland for fuel, crossing through treacherous canyons in the Andes, or seeing the Amazon Jungle stretch from horizon to horizon in front of me. They are all incredibly spectacular things to see but not places you would go for a family vacation. It’s part of my job and I’m thankful to see so much of the world .
The repossessions evolved out of long distance deliveries. I have delivered and retrieved airplanes from all over the globe for decades for brokers and manufacturers. It evolved into insurance and lien holder recoveries from that.
What’s the most dangerous thing you’ve ever done?
That’s hard to answer. I’ve jumped over 20 cars on a motorcycle, I’ve nearly been killed by lions, I spent 10 days in coronary care from a rattlesnake bite, I swim with crocodiles, I stole a King Air 200 from the Columbian Military in Bogota and ended up in jail in Baranquilla, I’ve raced motorcycles all my life, I’ve been a skydiver for 25 years and fly wingsuits nearly every weekend. I guess if I had to pick something it would be back in the early days of Skysurfing. I used to make my own equipment in the garage and then go out on the weekends, strap my homemade board to my feet, and jump out. Sometimes my designs didn’t work so well. I’m lucky to have survived all that.
At 58 years old, it seems like you’re just getting started. What do you see yourself doing at 70?
I’ve been doing all this all my life it’s just that someone just noticed. It reminds me of a new musician or movie star. They have been struggling for decades and finally made a hit and now they are an overnight success because no one had ever heard of them before.
Age will slow us all down eventually if we’re lucky enough to get old but I am going to fight it every step of the way. I have no desire to sit on the porch.
You’re a stunt driver, skydiver and aircraft daredevil. Is there anything you don’t do?
I was the kid in school nobody wanted on their ball team. I never really fit in the mainstream sports world very well. It didn’t really interest me that much and I wasn’t very good at it. We all have different interests and skills and I greatly respect those that are skilled at anything and recognize the work and dedication it took to get to that level regardless of whether its Formula One racing to Golf .
What’s your favorite country to travel?
Africa. I could spend several lifetimes in Africa and still not see all there is I would like to see there. I have spent a good amount of time there and all it does is fuel the fire and make me want more.
With all you’ve experienced, what on earth could be on your bucket list?
Angel Falls in Venezuela. The tallest vertical waterfall in the world at just over 3000ft. The greatest base jump launch site there is. I’ve wanted to jump off Angel Falls for as long as I can remember but it is one of the few goals I have never managed to achieve yet.
What’s your Male Standard?
To me its two things.
Life is not a spectator sport. If there is something that captures my interest enough for me to watch it and learn more about it, I am going to want to experience it for myself and the reward is directly proportional to the difficulty and risk of the achievement.
The other is that we are what we make of ourselves. It’s not someone else’s fault and no one owes us anything. We have to take responsibility for our own actions. If you want something bad enough in life it is up to you alone to make it happen.
Thanks to all of the cast of Airplane Repo for sharing their fascinating stories. Make sure to catch the season finale of Airplane Repo tonight on Discovery.