Ivy Tech College has received a Boeing 737 as a donation from Sage-Popovich Inc. | Jerry Davich~Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 18, 2013 6:15AM
The jumbo jet airplane looks like most every other Boeing 737 except for its stripped cockpit, removed wing-engines and remnants of a recent SWAT team training exercise.
It’s located at Gary/Chicago International Airport, near the flight operations center for Sage-Popovich Inc., a Valparaiso-based aviation recovery company. Owner Nick Popovich and his crack crew of specialists have repossessed more than 1,500 luxury jetliners and other high-priced aircraft over the past three decades.
But this Boeing 737, valued at $1.35 million, is one plane that was purchased by Popovich for the sole purpose of donating it to Ivy Tech Community College as an “Emergency Response Training Lab.”
It will be used to train Ivy Tech students studying criminal justice, public safety, law enforcement, and fire and emergency response. Just as important, it is immediately available as a unique training environment for Northwest Indiana law enforcement, fire and emergency responder personnel.
“To the best of our knowledge, this is currently the only such training lab platform in the country,” Popovich told me before I toured the plane earlier this week.
Popovich is a burly guy with both an intimidating grimace and a boyish smile. Simply put, he would rather wing-walk on one of his airborne planes than seek public attention for a good deed, I’ve learned through the years. So I asked him point-blank why he not only donated the plane, but also why he is covering all expenses for its parking, insurance, upkeep and maintenance for the next three years.
“I saw a need,” Popovich said modestly.
His unlikely connection with Ivy Tech began when Porter County Sheriff David Lain introduced him to Cindy Hall, Ivy tech’s executive director of resource development.
“We had lunch and the next thing I knew the Popovich Family Trust signed up to sponsor a summer program for kids — five $10,000 scholarships in the school’s law enforcement program,” Popovich said.
Around that time, his company had a repossessed A-320 Airbus aircraft parked at the Gary airport, attracting attention from police departments, U.S. Homeland Security Department and other law enforcement agencies as a training platform.
“We had teams from the U.S., Canada and Mexico training on the aircraft for various aspects, such as SWAT teams, dog handlers and emergency response situations,” Popovich told me.
That aircraft had to be scrapped for its owner but agencies across the country still wanted to train their teams on something similar. Popovich went shopping and bought the Boeing 737, donating it the Ivy Tech Foundation, which is now taking the lead.
Ivy Tech is the state’s largest public postsecondary institution and the nation’s largest singly accredited statewide community college system serving nearly 200,000 students annually.
“We are beyond thrilled about the opportunities made possible by the donation of this plane,” Thomas Coley, Ivy Tech’s chancellor of its northwest and north central regions, said in a statement.
The second type of training will be for seasoned officers to potentially obtain college credit for their continued education units. It also allows the chance for Northwest Indiana to put itself at the forefront for this type of unique training in case of aircraft-related emergency or rescue situations, local police officials say.
“I had been thinking of ways to expand our SWAT team capabilities,” Portage Police Chief Troy Williams said.
In August, he and SWAT team leader Ross Haynes drove to the Gary airport to check out the plane and meet with Popovich. Williams also formally asked for Ivy Tech’s permission to use the plane.
“With the recent anniversary of Sept. 11, it goes without saying that should our services ever be needed to make entry onto a hijacked plane, your willingness to allow us to train on your plane gives us a much greater chance of success,” he wrote in a letter to Ivy Tech officials. “Additionally, with our partnerships in multiple task forces and the close proximity of region airports, the likelihood that our services will be needed some day is ever-present.”
In September, his department’s SWAT team used the plane for training, which turned out to be very successful.
“With the region airports, it’s a real-world possibility that this skill could be used in the future and it is prudent of us to train for all possibilities,” Williams told me afterward.
Other region police departments are also welcome to use the plane, simply by asking, Popovich said.
This Friday, Popovich and Ivy Tech are hosting a celebratory open house, of sorts, for the plane, which will be docked at the Sage-Popovich flight operations center. The grand opening and fundraising event will take place at 4:30 p.m., with tours of the aircraft as well as the opportunity to meet and talk with first responders.
Guests will also be asked to consider making a donation to a newly created endowment fund, expected to total $1 million to $2 million, to maintain the airplane lab programs in perpetuity.
“There is no substitute for hands-on experience, and that’s exactly what this plane will offer students,” Ivy Tech’s Coley said. “The plane will provide training that we would otherwise have no way of facilitating.”
This jetliner-turned-training lab will indeed provide the opportunity for Northwest Indiana to become a nationwide leader in response training for aircraft-related situations. It would be a shame if local officials don’t hop aboard this program, which can also turn into an economic windfall for attracting outsiders to this region.
If I can be of any help to make such connections, feel free to contact me.
Connect with Jerry via email, at email@example.com, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.