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Big Ukrainian jet still grounded at Sawyer

June 27, 2010
By JOHN PEPIN Journal Staff Writer

MARQUETTE - After almost a year, a Ukrainian military jet that landed at Sawyer International Airport is still sitting there.

"Current status is status quo," said Marquette County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Cheryl Hill. "The plane remains at Sawyer."

The Ilyushin IL-78 tanker jet has been parked at Sawyer since it landed there on July 17. The jet was making a fuel stop at the former U.S. Air Force base en route from Texas to a destination in Europe, according to the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Article Photos

An Ilyushin IL-78 tanker jet has been parked at Sawyer since it landed there last July 17. The jet was making a fuel stop at the former U.S. Air Force base en route from Texas to a destination in Europe. It has sat grounded because of a dispute over unpaid money for goods and services. (Journal photo by Andy Nelson-Zaleski)

What's keeping it there is a legal dispute over non-payment of $63,910 for goods and services. Since the plane landed, there have been several court actions taken and hearings held on the issue.

In March, Marquette County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Solka issued an order granting a final default judgment and damages to maintenance company Air-1 Flight Support of Grayson County, Texas.

Air-1 requested damages from plane owner Tactical Air Defense Services Inc. of Florida and Air Support Systems LLC, which leased the aircraft.

Court documents showed invoices from Air-1 for numerous months of hangar rental, more than 1,500 gallons of jet fuel, preparations to start and move the aircraft, and maintenance for such things as reinstalling some of the plane's instruments, recharging batteries and rewelding a metal fence at the Texas airport blown down by the jet's exhaust.

Solka's order found in favor of Air-1 in the amount of $71,046, which included reimbursements of $3,436 to Marquette County and $3,786 to Boreal Aviation Inc. for storage and services.

"The plaintiff (Air-1) is authorized to take possession of said aircraft and may move it, remove it to Texas and may sell it in any commercially reasonable fashion as a set-off against the terms of this judgment," Solka wrote in his order.

But Hill said moving the plane has not been a simple task. Inquiries on the jet have come in from Canada and elsewhere. Junkmen have called asking about the plane. In Europe, there is interest in such Soviet-era planes for use fighting fires.

But Hill said the instrumentation of the plane is Russian and finding pilots certified to fly the jet, which would have to be contracted by Air-1, have proven hard to come by.

Hill said she is unaware of any efforts by Air-1 to market the aircraft to sell it to satisfy the lien.

Meanwhile, the plane sits. Barrels at the end of the wings are collecting leaking fuel.

"It's a special plane, so it might be there for a while," Hill said.

Last July, when the plane landed Sawyer, five crew members, including the pilot, were detained by customs agents and sheriff's deputies. Those detainees-all males-had recently expired visas, according to spokesman Khalid Walls of the Detroit office of ICE.

The charges against them were considered administrative rather than criminal, and they were "voluntarily removed" from the U.S. and placed on commercial flights back to the former Soviet republic. Their names weren't released because the case was not criminal, Walls said.

One model of the IL-78 on the Internet shows this cargo jet has a 165-foot wingspan, 152-foot length, top speed of 530 mph, range of 4,550 miles, and during its Soviet heyday, could carry 152 tons of fuel.

John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. His e-mail address is



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