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Stranded Ilyushin IL-78 Seeks Pilots

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July 17, 2009, an Ilyushin IL-78 tanker jet stopped at Sawyer International Airport, Mich., while en route out of Texas for Europe, beginning a complicated web of legal wranglings that have left the big jet sitting there ever since. The crew that flew the jet to Michigan was, shortly after their arrival, deported by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, because they held recently expired visas, according to a local Michigan newspaper. Since then, a maintenance company, Air-1, out of Texas, has claimed in court that it went unpaid for goods and services the aircraft consumed while under its care. And the court has ruled that Air-1 "is authorized to take possession of said aircraft and may move it," if they can find and hire certified pilots to fly the Russian-instrumented jet. As the jet's one-year anniversary of sitting at Sawyer approaches, inquiries are beginning to flow in from around the world that may tempt Air-1 to exercise other options.

The aircraft is owned by Tactical Air Defense Services Inc. of Florida and Air Support Systems LLC, but the court ruling means Air-1 would have to find and contract the uniquely certified crew. Part of the judgment for Air-1 states that "sell it in any commercially reasonable fashion as a set-off against the terms of this judgment." The aircraft is still popular in some parts of the world, has a max payload of more than 110,000 pounds and a maximum fuel capacity of nearly 200,000 pounds, and could be converted for use fighting fires. At present, Air-1 has not taken any action to sell the aircraft to satisfy its lien, according to its lawyer. So, for now, the plane sits.

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