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Wed, Mar 28, 2007

Jet Grounded Over US, Russian Ownership Dispute

When NORAD Has To Get Involved, It's Seldom Good

Is it all a misunderstanding over paperwork... or the thwarting of a somewhat shady scheme? That's the question posed by a lone MD-87 airliner now sitting on the ramp at Milwaukee's Mitchell International Airport, after the plane was diverted from its planned flight to Canada this weekend.

The Milwaukee (WI) Journal-Sentinel reports the $15 million corporate airliner (similar to type shown above) was destined for a large Russian business. A civil dispute emerged during the sale transaction, however, when the buyer claimed the plane wasn't delivered on time.

As counterpoint, the Delaware-based seller says executives at Russian telecommunications subsidiary Siviera wanted over $1 million in extras onboard the already well-equipped, 19-passenger corporate conversion. Those extras included external cameras, and such necessities as a karaoke machine. But the company didn't want shareholders to know about those amenities... and asked the work be billed as something else.

Representatives with Siveria say that money was being held in a separate account while those luxuries were being installed at an outfitter based at Meacham Field in Fort Worth, TX. An attorney for the seller maintains the jet was due for completion in the next few weeks -- but that plan didn't satisfy the Russians.

Which brings us to last Saturday... when the plane departed Meacham bound for Moscow, with a stopover in Canada. All was going well for the three Russian pilots and three passengers onboard the plane... until NORAD caught wind of the suspected plane theft from the FAA.

Major April Cunningham of the Colorado Springs, CO-based command center said F-16s were at the ready, prepared to intercept the allegedly pilfered plane... but the MD-87 landed in Milwaukee before those planes had the chance to take flight.

Federal agents -- who weren't quite sure what to expect -- rushed to the airport, commandeered the plane and interviewed the crew. Officials told the Journal-Sentinel it soon became clear what had transpired was a contract dispute, and not necessarily an international incident... but TSA official Ed Rooney says a criminal investigation may still be warranted.

"I think there is something that needs to be looked into," said Rooney. "There is definitely a dispute between the buyer and seller, and the seller didn't want the plane leaving before it is paid for. It's hard to send the repo man to Moscow."

FBI special agent Monica Shipley said Monday "there is no criminal or terrorism nexus here." Meanwhile, a Delaware judge has signed a restraining order, forbidding the plane to take flight again until the entire mess is straightened out.

And then there's the question of whether the Russian flight crew was even cleared to operate the plane in the first place. FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory says the agency had told the pilots the aircraft was not airworthy -- and that the pilots did not have the required waiver to fly the larger plane.

"Our inspector did not, emphasis not, say that the aircraft is not airworthy," Cory said. "It comes down to the authorization for flight."

Hopefully we'll get past this without an international incident, and the new owners can one day share a vodka toast to those excitable Americans...and our obsession with details.



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