A 56-year-old pilot with a high-adrenaline lifestyle has taken over the screen Wednesday at 9 p.m. for the premiere of the third season of Airplane Repo on Discovery Channel.
Mike Kennedy, a 1983 UCF graduate with a bachelor's in zoology, is one of the main characters in the TV show, which depicts five people repossessing airplanes, from private jets to seaplanes.
Kennedy still gets caught off guard when people recognize him from TV, but before his life of fame, he was flying airplanes — and repossessing them for 20 years — skydiving, scuba diving, motorcycle racing on the professional circuit and working as a professional stuntman and animal handler.
"I've never been too good at sitting in an office," he said.
Along with getting into the repossession business, Kennedy has been delivering airplanes all over the world for the past few decades. The first repos he went after were theft recoveries for insurance companies.
"I had already taken the airplanes over there, so they asked me if could go get them and bring them back," he said. "[Repossessing] wasn't even something intentional. It just kind of happened."
From working in Brazil and Europe to crossing the North Atlantic, his favorite stop, and one of the most spectacular places he has ever been, is Greenland.
"It's like [the] Antarctic or something: sheer vertical ice cliffs that go right down to the ocean and the ice cap. It's incredible," he said. "Even though the runways are at sea level, there's 5,000-foot vertical cliffs all the way around them.
"It is really cool, some of the places this job takes me."
Growing up just outside of Anchorage, Alaska, for much of his life, flying was a way of life for Kennedy. And his dad earning a living as a pilot was what piqued his interest.
"Some of my earliest memories are riding around in the backseat of the Cessna 180, sitting on top of the boost speed, going home," he said. "Shoot, I thought that's the way everybody got around when I was a little kid."
Even though Kennedy makes a living repossessing airplanes, he has stayed true to his UCF-rooted zoology degree and remains one of the few people the state of Florida calls to rescue animals.
"Aviation and dirt-bike racing and all that stuff, I like to do, but the animals have always been an integral part — part of my personality," he said. "It's a way to use my degree. It's something that I'm interested in and never gotten away from."
One of the crocodiles he rescued and now keeps at his Orlando home, is more than 14 feet long and 1,000 pounds. He nurtured the croc back to life with help from veterinarians at the University of Florida and cleaned out the wounds every day for four to five months.
"He'd been hit by a car or in a fight with another big crocodile," Kennedy said. "He comes when I call him now."
In addition to crocodiles, he and his wife Valerie — who he met at Valencia Community College in 1978 — have big cats, snakes and other animals. But, by far, Kennedy's favorite animal is his 16-year-old leopard Spot, who they have had since he was born.
"He and I have shared a bond that really doesn't happen with leopards," he said. "They're notoriously pretty difficult to work with.
"It's really amazing to be that close to an animal with that kind of power. I know when he's gone it's not something I'll ever experience again, so I treasure every minute."
Even when Kennedy gets home and lets Spot out of his cage, he and the leopard spend quality time together.
"I sit out there in a lawn chair and I'm doing my emails or something, and he just lays there like a big dog or puts his head up in my lap."
But Kennedy's busy schedule takes him away from the animals for up to 25 days, for a few consecutive months, so his wife becomes the animal wrangler during those times.
"He's gone a lot, so I'm the girl taking care of those animals," she said with a laugh. "But I love it."
Having flown everything from Alaskan bush planes to amphibious seaplanes, his new venture is helicopters, something he is putting a lot of focus into.
"I've been flying airplanes all my life, and learning to fly helicopters is so different that it's like learning how to fly all over again," he said. "I've been having a lot of fun with that."
Jarrod Heil is the Sports Editor for the Central Florida Future. Follow him on Twitter at @JHeil11 or email him at JarrodH@CentralFloridaFuture.com.