On a muggy summer day in 2011, Ken Hill walked onto a small landing strip in DeLand, Florida, and announced his intention to repossess two airplanes.
Usually, the process goes smoothly enough: He’ll slap a seizure notice on the aircraft, look over the logbooks for mechanical issues, weasel his way inside the cockpit, and fly it off into the sunset.
But this time, the planes’ lendee, a disgruntled flight school operator, was on-site — and drunk as all hell. As Hill prepped the planes, the man charged toward him with a 2×4 and started swinging.
“I had to have a complete knee replacement because of that,” says Hill. “But I still got both airplanes out of there.”
For Hill, it was all in a day’s work.
One of America’s only airplane repo men, he’s spent more than 2 decades flying all over the world on behalf of banks, reclaiming aircraft from broke businessmen, crumbling corporations, and drug lords.
The repo business
Hill makes his living on the back of delinquent borrowers.
When you buy something using a loan, you have an obligation to make timely payments to the lender. If you fall far enough behind on these payments, the lender (typically a bank) has the right to reclaim the good in question without a court order.
To get this job done, it often enlists the help of a repo company.
In the US, repo is an $800m industry with 11k firms; nearly all of them focus on cars, where the bulk of the business lies. But sometimes a bank needs to reclaim something bigger — much bigger — and that’s when Ken Hill gets the call.
At 77 years-old, Hill is far from the stereotypical repo man.
He isn’t jacked, bearded, or tattooed to the gills. He uses words, not fists, to wrestle airplanes away from loan defaulters. With kind blue eyes and an affinity for grandpa sweaters, he looks more like Mr. Rogers than a member of the Hells Angels.
But looks deceive.
In the words of one airplane lender, Hill is a “legend” in this niche industry — a man who comes back with a plane no matter the risk or circumstances.
A licensed aircraft dealer since 1968, Hill found success in the ‘80s running an airplane maintenance operation (FBO) in Arizona. It was around that time that he got a strange request from a bank he worked with.
“They called and said, ‘A Florida guy we sold an airplane to disappeared on us; can you find the plane?’” recalls Hill. “The typical car repo guys didn’t have the necessary experience to do the airplane repossessions.”
Hill saw a business opportunity — and in 1996, he set his focus on airplane repossessions.
Today, Hill’s Santa Barbara, California-based outfit, Business Aircraft Sales, is one of only 3 airplane repo outfits in the US. The job requires an unusual mix of skills: Vast flying experience, mechanical knowledge, legal know-how, and a large capacity for risk.
It’s a business full of unexpected encounters, shady characters, and bumpy rides. One misstep could cost a bank a multimillion-dollar airplane.
Over the last 23 years, Hill claims to have flown some 13k miles and repossessed more than 3k airplanes, ranging from single-engine private planes to jumbo jets.
His jobs range in scope from repossessing a small Piper Saratoga from a private owner in Chicago to seizing an entire fleet of planes from a defunct airline in Mumbai, India.
As one industry insider puts it, today’s repo work is “more of a chess game than combat.” It’s a process requiring delicacy, attention to detail, and legal finesse.
Under laws adopted by all 50 US states, a repo man must not “breach the peace,” meaning Hill can’t use threats or force to obtain an airplane. He also must have “free and clear access” to the plane: If a plane is inside a hangar, he has to get permission to enter. No cutting locks or breaking down doors.
Hill has a particular resentment toward Airplane Repo (2010-2015), a Discovery Network reality show that chronicled the staged adventures of fellow repo men.
“They’re unorthodox cowboys,” says Hill. “I’m not jumping over fences with cameramen behind me and flying away in the dark. There are laws to follow.”
How to repossess an airplane
The airplane repo process is fairly straightforward, albeit logistically complex.
A bank typically gives someone who is late on a loan payment 90 days (and 3 written warnings) before siccing Hill on the job. But after 31 days, it will preemptively send Hill a file including the airplane’s registration number and the lendee’s contact information.
Using this information, Hill begins the process of finding out where the airplane is.
Most cases call for tracking technology, both from FlightAware.com (a website that traces the real-time flight patterns of FAA-registered aircraft) and proprietary databases, to pin down a precise location.
Hill taps into an extensive network of contacts to check out the plane in-person: Is it on a runway? In an enclosed hangar, requiring entry permission? What kind of shape does it appear to be in?
Once he has a read on the situation, he flies out to personally retrieve it — a process that might take as little as a few hours, or as much as several days.
On the ground, Hill’s first order of business is to get inside the plane. If the lendee isn’t there to greet him, he must resort to a crucial tool of the trade: a collection of “thousands and thousands of keys” he’s amassed over the years. When he can’t get in using a master key, he’ll wriggle his way through the emergency exit or the “hellhole,” a small compartment at the rear of the plane.
Possession secured, he looks over the plane’s log books and does a visual check for things like rat and snake nests to determine whether it’s mechanically sound to fly. If it is, he fires her up and flies to an undisclosed “safe haven.”
“I want to make sure I get it out of state,” he says, “so some low-life judge can’t issue a 120-day stay and drag it through the court.”
From here, he’ll get the plane appraised and list it for auction on behalf of the bank, advertising with online platforms like Trade-A-Plane. Within a few hours of posting, he might get 5 calls from interested parties.
For the repo itself, Hill is paid anywhere from $1.5k to $15k, depending on the size and scope of the job; for the sale, he takes a small percentage of the plane’s recovery value.
On any given year, he’ll take on 30-50 of these jobs — a figure that increases during financial crises, when defaulted loans spike — and he’s sold everything from a $10m jet down to a $15k “junker” plane.
As he likes to say, “There’s an ass for every seat.”
Some repossessions go smoothly and a lendee simply hands over the keys. Once, Hill was even offered a home-cooked meal before flying off with a man’s plane.
But repo work, even when by the books, lends itself to occasional danger.
According to the American Recovery Association, the foremost organization for repo agents, an average of 2 repo men die on the job every year.
Hill has been “beaten up a few times” (including the shattered kneecap in 2011), stared down by drug transporters, and even chased by a woman yielding a yard rake.
On a sticky summer afternoon in 2007, Hill walked into an airplane hanger in Lincoln, Rhode Island, to repossess a single-engine aircraft. Thirty minutes into the job, a Bentley came screeching up the road and a “short, stocky mafioso type” came barreling toward him.
When Hill said he was taking the plane on behalf of Santander Bank, the man reached into his pocket for a snubnosed .32 revolver — but as he attempted to pull it out, the gun got caught in the man’s pants and he shot himself in the foot.
“I drove him to the emergency room,” says Hill. “As he was being wheeled down the hallway into surgery, he looked at me and yelled out, ‘Hey, I like you, you’re a good guy! Go take my plane.’”
Hill speaks of such encounters with nonchalance, as if recounting a fishing trip with buddies.
“Danger,” he says, “is merely something that lurks in the mind of a man.”
The grim reaper cometh
Repo work has taken Hill all over the world.
In the past year, he’s done jobs in Arizona, Illinois, Massachusetts, Texas, Hawaii, London, Germany, India, South America, South Africa, and, of course, Florida, which he calls a “haven” for illegally maintained planes.
“I go there a lot more than I’d like to,” he says. “For whatever reason, there are a lot of dishonest people in Florida.”
His diligence in the industry has earned him a Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award from the FAA, an honor bestowed on just 1.5k of 386k registered pilots in the US. Requiring 50 years free of violations, it’s a rare feat in the rough-and-tumble business of repo.
Though nearing 80, he hasn’t put much stock in finding a protégé. Scores of young bucks express interest in joining him, but often for the wrong reasons. Besides, he says, the work is too challenging and complex to teach.
Besides, he adds, not everyone wants the nicknames that come with the territory.
“Some folks call me the Grim Reaper,” he says. “Because when I knock, you know I’m going to take something from you.”