An Interview With Discovery Channel's Most Interesting Man: Mike Kennedy

Mike Kennedy might be the most interesting man in the world. With an academic background in zoology, Kennedy is an animal wrangler, motorcycle stunt rider, weapons trader, and has the ability to fly almost any aircraft. Kennedy, one might say, is tailor-made for his job as an airplane repo man. (When a shady financier defaults on a Gulfstream and it's tucked far away from the bank's clutches in Bali, someone has to go get it.)

From flying half-broken planes to hanging out with his pet cobras, Mr. Kennedy has allowed the Discovery Channel's cameras in on the action, and his show Airplane Repo, now in its second season, airs Friday nights on Discovery. We caught up with Kennedy earlier this week to discuss his high-octane career, motorcycles, and exotic animals. Fasten your seat belt for take off. 

What's the most dangerous part of your job?
I don't know what condition an airplane is in, what the inspection status is, what maintenance has been done, if any. For all I know it may have even been sabotaged. No matter how closely I look it over, I'm always worried about what is going to fall off or blow up when I take off.

Have you ever sat down in the pilot's seat and been like, s***, I don't know how to fly this but I'm going to have to anyway?
I have flown hundreds of different kinds of airplanes and most of them only one time. There have been many times I've been on some remote South American strip somewhere and run up to an airplane not knowing how to even open the door.

Are all the cameras annoying?
It often adds to an already difficult situation, but so far we have managed to work around it.

How do you track down the airplanes?
Owner and corporate addresses. Airplane home base. Flight plan records. Word of mouth. There are many details that need to come together, but I don't want to give away all the secrets.

What happens if a plane you're planning on repossessing is unfit for flight?
A lot of times the airplane is unfit for flight. I need to know how to fix it or have someone with me who can because often times—especially on international jobs—that airplane is my only ride out.

What's the commission for an expensive lear jet if you find it?
That varies. Sometimes it's all set up and all I have to do is go fly it back. Other times a plane could be on the opposite side of the world and the lien holder has no idea what to do, so I have to do all the planning, including fuel stops, customs arrangements, overflight permits, etc. Flying long distance over oceans and polar regions can be quite risky, [which] factors into the fees also. 

Legal and customs problems appear to be a nightmare. What kind of problems has this presented?
I have all the ferry permits, flight wires, possession papers, court orders or whatever else I need before I ever set out on a trip. If confronted by Security, TSA, or police, it can get pretty tense. But once the paperwork is verified, it confirms my job is legal. That is not necessarily the case when I am out of the country—I have run into some real jams internationally. 

What kind of gadgets do you usually carry with you on the job?
I always have a handheld radio, satellite phone, and GPS with me. If everything in the airplane dies, and it sometimes does, I can at least navigate and communicate.

Your resume lists weapons trader, which inherently sounds shady. Explain?
I am a Federal Firearms Licensee. There is nothing shady about it and I generally only deal with police departments and government agencies. 

You're also a stunt motorcycle rider. What's your motorcycle of choice?
Like airplanes, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all motorcycle. I have a Honda CRF450 motocross bike for off-road, a Yamaha R1 for superbike for racing, a Ducati Monster for twisty road sport riding, and a Harley Fat Boy for putting around.

Talk to us about your life as a trained zoologist. Your house must be a zoo, so to speak. 
I have big cats, crocodiles, and venomous snakes. Our facility is a 501(c)3 nonprofit called Dragon Ranch. I rescue injured, sick, and displaced American crocodiles for the state of Florida. I have a 14-foot, 1,000-pound male who comes when I call him and eats out of my hand. He came to us with terrible injuries and no one expected him to live. Five years later, after a lot of work and dedication, he has become a major success story. 

My cobras know me from everyone else, but all that means is they focus on me no matter who else may be there because they know I'm the only one in the room they can't intimidate and I'm the only one who handles them. It annoys me when people ask about my pet cobras. I work with them and handle them every day, cleaning cages, feeding, etc., but there is no such thing as a pet cobra.

What's the most badass thing, by your own standards, you've ever done?
It's a long story, but I went after a King Air 200 that was stolen and turned up in a military compound in Bogota, Colombia. It was a successful trip but not after a multitude of bad problems including being locked up in  Barranquilla, Colombia, and then again by the DEA when I finally did make it back to Florida.

While I was dealing with all that, I had a shipment of 15-foot King Cobras arrive from Malaysia that my wife had to go to Miami to accept on my behalf.

Ethan Wolff-Mann is an editor at Supercompressor. He cannot fly a plane, but would volunteer if there was nobody else. Follow him on Twitter @ewolffmann.