Father of the Beasts

by Sway Benns

The Lion, The Plane, The Pavement, The Jungle
With excerpts from The Iliad & The Odyssey by Homer
Mike Kennedy, sedate rōnin on the reality television show Airplane Repo, is oft seen gallivanting across the flickering screens of our idiot boxes—in foreign lands, repossessing airplanes with dubious mechanical records, and at home, chaperoning a mixed group of prowling, commonly injured, wholly undomesticated animals. He fulfills our desires of latent voyeurism, granting us the opportunity to let loose a well timed “I would never do that” to fellow armchair compatriots. And yet, in Kennedy we find, right beneath the surface, the key to the waxed-winged Icarus’ survival—centuries too late to save the bipedal glider from a tragic end but right on time for our own globetrotting protagonist: Restraint.

“Each man delights in the work that suits him best.” 

My work evolved out of other things. I first started out doing a lot of delivery work for aircraft brokers. They would buy airplanes in Africa, Europe, South America, wherever. They sent me to go get them and oftentimes they wouldn’t be in very good condition, and I’d have to put a lot of work into them and then fly them over the Atlantic or up the Amazon jungle to get them back to the States. It transpired out of that. It started becoming more insurance recoveries, chasing down stolen airplanes. Like a lot of things in life, I think you end up places you didn’t totally set out to be, but it’s just the way it happened and it developed into this. I’ve been doing this for about twenty-five years.

“I have suffered much from waves and wars, and now let this trial join the rest.” With that said, this plane is in great condition: The wings appear to be attached.

Oftentimes [the condition of the plane] is the biggest risk of everything that you’re up against. In a foreign country somewhere or jungle strip. Shit, I could be on a polar ice cap. Airplanes can be anywhere and I don’t really have a whole lot of time to prep them and get ready to go—sometimes no time at all—and I often have no idea what condition the airplane is in until I get there and many times I don’t have all the paperwork beforehand. Airplanes go through a very regimented inspection schedule and so forth, but often—in times like this—I don’t have access to those records, so I don’t really know what the inspection status is, or how old the engines are, or when it was flown last, or any of that.

“His descent was like nightfall.” 

You’re air launching off of a mountain strip, heading over the Amazon jungle somewhere and you’re thinking, “Boy, I hope I didn’t forget anything. I think I checked everything over.” It is a little nerve-wracking. About an hour into the flight and it’s still running and nothing fell off, you kind of start relaxing a little bit, [then start] worrying about the next step.

“A man who has been through bitter experiences and travelled far enjoys even his sufferings after a time.” 

I went to recover a King Air 200 that had been stolen, and an insurance company sent me down to repo—well I guess that’s even more than a repo when you’re actually taking it back from the people who stole it. It was in Bogota, Colombia during the ’80s, kind of during the height of the cocaine cowboy thing, so that was really bad. I did manage to get the airplane out of there. It was in terrible condition, no interior in it; it was all beat-up and had broken windows. I flew it out but immediately had some pretty severe mechanical problems and I had to land it and the soldiers thought I was the drug runner who had stolen the airplane. I ended up in jail there and that was a really sticky situation. I didn’t know if I was ever going to get out of Colombia.

I managed to get one phone call and I knew it was going to take a lot more than that one, so I called my wife and I told her where I was and what had happened and who she needed to get a hold of, and then it was in her hands. She really went to work. She had to pursue a lot of different avenues but as it turns out, I really wasn’t there all that long. It really wasn’t all that bad. We could verify what I was doing and who actually owned the airplane and everything. It was still really scary, in a country like Colombia, there’s no way of knowing what is going to happen. That airplane had obviously been used for a lot of things that were pretty shady, to say the least, and I was an American citizen down there in the jungles. I could have disappeared forever; luckily it didn’t work out that way.

“There can be no covenants between men and lions, wolves and lambs can never be of one mind, but hate each other out and out an through. Therefore there can be no understanding between you and me, nor may there be any covenants between us, till one or other shall fall.”

I remember one time I was, gosh, I was in grade school, and my dad brought home a pair of grizzly bear cubs. Someone had shot the mother, and he rescued the cubs and had them in a big dog kennel in the back of the airplane. We had them for a little while and then Fish and Wildlife helped find a home for them and they ended up in the Seattle Zoo. That was kind of the way I grew up, so it’s just carried on and now I work with a lot of exotic animals; I have crocodiles, a lot of venomous snakes, I have big cats…I have a degree in Zoology. Actually, my education is as a biologist. I mostly do it as a kind of rescue sanctuary.

“Of all creatures that breathe and move upon the earth, nothing is bred that is weaker than man.”

It always rubs me wrong when people call [the animals in the show] pets. I take very good care of the animals and they have a good life, but they’re not pets. But—you do develop relationships with them. My leopard and I have an incredible bond, and I know that it’s something I’ll probably never experience again. Leopards in the wild are very solitary animals, and why he’s stayed so bonded to me all his life I don’t know, but it’s been such a privilege to be that close to him. I can do anything to that animal and I’m the only one who can, and I don’t take it for granted at all…But if the leopard gets out of hand, sometimes he’ll bite me too hard when we’re playing, or he’ll jump me from behind, which is a very dangerous situation. I’ll spin around and grab him by the jowls and kind of forcefully say, “No” and just really take over psychologically—when really it’s kind of ridiculous because he could overpower me so easily and so fast.

“Give me a place to stand and I will move the earth.”

I raced motocross all through my teens and twenties, and then I went over to super bike racing. I ran an AMA Pro Superbike for quite a while, I was running Cup Series through the ’80s and ’90s, and I ran a Formula One bike for a while…One of my favorite things about racing was that when you’re at race pace, those bikes will do 200 miles per hour. When you’re out there running that hard, your mind is so focused—there’s just nothing else in the world, there’s nothing in the universe for that period of time, you’re just so focused on the pavement in front of you. And nothing can clear your mind like that. I’ve never found anything to replace it.

“The roaring seas and many a dark range of mountains lie between us.” 

We were in Alaska a couple of months ago, and we recovered a de Havilland Beaver, an old antique airplane from way back up in the mountain ranges in Alaska, the current north of Mount McKinley. In all my flying in all my life, I’ve never been in scenery that spectacular. We’re flying along at 8,000 feet, but in a valley completely surrounded by mountains that were anywhere from 14 to 20,000 feet, and they were the most jagged, spectacular, glacier-covered mountains I’d ever seen in my life. And flying along up these canyons where you literally have mountains and cliffs off of both wing tips, so close that you couldn’t even turn around if you wanted to, and it was just crystal clear blue, blue glaciers and the white snow. It was some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve ever seen.