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Tue, Aug 31, 2010

Russian Jet Stranded In Michigan Brings Cold War Memories

Ilyushin IL-78 Has Sat At Sawyer International For 13 Months, And Will Be There A Little Longer

A Russian military jet being delivered to Pakistan where it was to be used for training wound up stranded in Michigan's Upper Peninsula for 13 months, and while locals say they'll be happy to see it leave soon, it's not going anywhere for a while.

The airplane landed at Sawyer International Airport (KSAW) last year when it was denied permission to leave U.S. airspace. The IL-78 had reportedly sat in Texas for three years, where it was accruing storage and repair bills which were going unpaid. A company which is controlled by Florida entrepreneur Gary Fears' family trust reportedly owned the plane, which had hoped to use it as a water bomber to fight fires. The Ilyushin had started life as an aerial tanker, and Fears' company bought it from Ukraine in 2005 for about $4 million. But Fears could not get the plane certified as a water tanker, so it sat in Texas.

And it sat. Maintenance firm owner Victor Miller eventually placed a lien against the aircraft as the bills stacked up to over $62,000. When he learned that Fears had sold the plane and planned to have it ferried to Pakistan, he took out a restraining order to prevent it from being moved.

That didn't appear to deter Fears. The Detroit News reports that the FAA granted a ferry permit for the plane, but it was good only in the US. When the airplane departed Texas, before the tower was open and without permission to leave the U.S., Miller tracked it online. 

His lawyer contacted authorities in Michigan about the plane after it landed, unable to depart U.S. airspace into Canada, saying the plane was stolen. The Marquette County sheriff's office said they had no jurisdiction over the Texas legal 'Cold War'. Fears said he was "on a tight schedule" and had hoped to receive clearance to depart U.S. airspace while in flight, insisting he was not sealing the plane. But when the flight crew, five of whom were Ukrainian with expired visas, told authorities they were flying to Pakistan and couldn't be specific as to WHY they were going there, the plane was "swarmed" by agents from the FBI, Immigration, TSA, and the FAA. The crew was arrested and held for two days before the foreign nationals were returned to the former Soviet state.

Meanwhile, the planes' tires were locked and it was blocked by a snowplow. Fears was fined $2,500 for trying to take the plane out of the U.S. without approval.

But that's not the end of the story. The paper says a judge in Michigan found in favor of Miller and granted him ownership of the plane, which he then sold for $60,000 to covered almost all of the debt he said he was owed. Fears contested the sale, and paid the debt a couple of weeks ago, but it will be November before another judge decides whether he can reclaim his $4 million airplane. If he does, there may be a sense of deja vu, as it apparently will need more repairs. Locals say that fuel is leaking from its wings, and birds are nesting in the tailcone.

FMI: www.miwd.uscourts.gov

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