14 July 2010

Intrigue Idles Soviet-Era Jet In Michigan

The Wall Street Journal

MARQUETTE, Mich.—One morning last July, a Russian-made military plane landed at an airport near this Lake Superior town.

Nine men with foreign accents disembarked. Some went off to eat and shop. When they returned, a flock of federal agents and local police were waiting. Five men were taken to jail.

The plane, an Ilyushin IL-78, had come from Texas, bound for Pakistan. "All of us were trying to figure out what they were picking up or smuggling," says Cheryl Hill, assistant prosecutor of Marquette County. Capt. David Lemire of the Marquette County Sheriff's Office says, "People to this day still ask, 'What's up with that plane?"'

Not much. Nearly a year later, the 231-ton Cold War leftover remains at Sawyer International Airport, leaking fuel and luring birds.

It's an albatross of sorts for this Upper Peninsula county, which owns the airport and went months without being paid almost $4,000 for storage and maintenance.

Ms. Hill and others here still aren't sure why the plane wound up in their backyard, but now, she says, "I can't get rid of the damn thing."

The Soviet Union used similar Ilyushins in its 1980s war with Afghanistan. The tankers are equipped to refuel jets in midair and can be converted for carrying cargo or fighting fires.

The aircraft stranded in Michigan was built in 1988, says Gary Fears, a Boca Raton, Fla., entrepreneur whose family trust controls Air Support Systems LLC, which bought the Ilyushin for about $4 million in 2005.

Mr. Fears, 64 years old, has helped develop casinos in Illinois and Florida and has been involved in real-estate development, steak houses and an auto-body repair business. He envisioned retooling the Ilyushin for fire fighting after living in fire-ravaged California in the early 2000s.

The plane is "breathtaking in terms of its capabilities," he says, adding that it can spread fire retardant "across five football fields in one pass."

The plane sat idle at a Grayson County, Texas, airport for three years without a job. Last year, North American Tactical Aviation Inc., a privately held concern in Newark, Del., that buys and sells used military aircraft, leased the plane.

NATA planned to fly it to Pakistan and court the military as a customer, company president Dwight Barnell says.

On July 16 last year, the Federal Aviation Administration granted a "ferry permit" for the plane to leave Texas. The next morning, the Ilyushin took off with a crew of Ukrainians and others hired by NATA.

Originally, the plane was to fly directly to Iceland and stop briefly before proceeding to Pakistan. But it left Texas without securing U.S. Customs and Border Protection permission to leave the country. It stopped in Michigan to finalize that, Mr. Barnell says.

The Ilyushin landed on Sawyer's 2.3-mile-long runway, set amid vast stands of jack pine. The airport, about 17 miles south of Marquette, is itself a Cold War relic, a former Air Force base built in the 1950s to defend against Soviet attack. Budget cuts closed it in 1995, but it reopened as a commercial airport and today handles about 400 flights a month.

Airport officials snapped photographs as the Ilyushin swooped in. The crew had called ahead to order more than $45,000 of fuel.

A different call came to the county Sheriff's Office: A Texas lawyer claimed the Iluyshin had been stolen, police say. Documents showed a Texas judge had ordered the plane grounded because Mr. Fears' company owed $62,400 to a maintenance firm for fuel, repairs and storage at the Texas airport.

Mr. Fears disputes owing anything to the firm, Air-1 Flight Support Inc., and says he and the crew were unaware of the judge's order.

Air-1 owner Victor Miller says he informed Mr. Fears and the crew of the order. After the plane left Texas, Mr. Miller tracked it on the Internet and had his lawyer call Michigan. "If that airplane left the country, I was never going to get anything out of it," he says.

Up in Michigan, Ms. Hill, the prosecutor, told police they lacked jurisdiction; the plane could buy fuel and go. But most of the crew had scattered to nearby stores and restaurants.

Chatting with two crew members who spoke English, Sheriff's Detective Lt. Stephen Kangas learned the plane was going to Pakistan. But the men weren't clear on what they planned to do there, Lt. Kangas says. He called the local FBI.

Soon the airport was swarming with agents from the FBI, FAA and Transportation Security Administration, while Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents drove over from Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.

Inside the plane, police saw gauges marked in Cyrillic script, packages of ramen noodles, an American flag and a stringer of dried fish. Nero the drug-sniffing dog found nothing illegal.

Sometime after midnight, Customs Enforcement agents cuffed five Ukrainian crew members and took them to jail for having expired visas. Several days later, the men were allowed to return to Ukraine. The others, including two U.S. citizens, left town.

Efforts to interview the crew members were unsuccessful.

At the airport, gawkers cruised the perimeter seeking a glimpse of the plane. One man wrote on a television news website, "I wonder how these bozos can have free access to U.S. airspace with a heavy aircraft, and I am not allowed a few simple carry-on items?"

While the feds investigated, a Marquette County Circuit judge and Customs and Border Protection separately ordered the plane held. Workers blocked it with dump trucks and a snowplow. When fuel started leaking from the wings, Ms. Hill worried winter snow and ice might collapse a wing and cause a costly spill.

Customs and Border Protection released the plane in February and fined Mr. Fears' company $2,500 for lacking a license to take the plane out of the country. The Marquette judge awarded the Ilyushin to Air-1, the Texas maintenance firm.

Last Friday, Mr. Fears' attorneys asked the judge to put yet another hold on the plane, alleging Air-1's Mr. Miller recently sold it to Temco Industries Inc. of Wilmington, Del., for $60,000, "a fraction of what the Aircraft is worth." Temco couldn't be reached; Mr. Miller didn't respond to calls or emails Monday.

Starlings are nesting in the Ilyushin's tail and pigeons flutter in and out of an engine. Ms. Hill says she'd love to see the plane leave Michigan, although, "If they want to donate it to us, we'll take it."

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