The Conner Conspiracy

He was an aviation classic: independent, stubborn, savvy. And he was convinced powerful forces were out to ruin him. Did that include government informants and federal agents? Gus Conner will never know.

Conner told her from the beginning their life would be one of hard work, saving money, and above all collecting airplanes. "His first love on earth was airplanes, and that's why he built what you see here," says Mrs. Conner, surrounded by the wall maps, photographs of old planes, and dusty aviation manuals that decorate the hangar office of the company she inherited. "One of the first things he said to me was, 'You leave my airplanes alone and we'll get along real good.' He made it real clear."

Geneva Conner stayed at home and raised two girls while her husband raised a lot of runway dust. Beginning with four pilots, one secretary, and two leased Douglas C-47 aircraft, he first operated as an international contract cargo carrier between New York, Miami, and Caracas, Venezuela. After incorporating his business as Conner Air Lines, Inc., Conner expanded his horizons to include flights to points throughout the United States, the West Indies, and Central and South America. Conner liked to tell people later that he and his company were instrumental in helping the government develop a method of using civilian aircraft to transport military supplies and personnel on scheduled routes around the world. Most of those who knew him say he was a true patriot, willing to help his country in any way he could. He was also an astute and tight-lipped businessman who worked long hours, benefited from several government contracts, and plowed his profits back into new airplanes.

Conner even spent free time in his hangar office. He used a bottle of Ballentine's scotch to draw pilots and technicians from his and other companies to an evening happy hour. The men would trade airport gossip and stories set in places like Barranquilla, Merida, and San Juan. Tippling had the usual effect of making everyone more voluble A except Conner. "He mostly just listened," recalls Art Ford, one of Conner's oldest friends, who worked for him as a pilot in the 1950s and 1960s. "He would only have a couple of drinks and sit quiet while the other boys talked. That way he'd get all the information. I accused him one time of doing just that and he kind of laughed about it."

Ford, an air force captain during World War II, says Conner was never part of the true brotherhood of men with flying in their blood. "You see, I liked to be up there," the 81-year-old pilot explains, motioning upward beyond the low ceiling of his house near Everglades City. "Gus wasn't interested in flying as much as the business of wheeling and dealing in airplanes, and he was real shrewd and mechani-cally inclined. He would buy an airplane nobody else wanted and have it operating in no time."

When Conner did fly, it was usually on missions to retrieve airplanes he had purchased, many of them in such disrepair that they had to be "glued together," as Ford puts it, before any attempt to send them aloft. Improvised repair of planes was common around the northwest corner of the airport, where Conner Air Lines moved in the late 1960s, along with other cargo carriers. The area soon earned the nickname Corrosion Corner because of all the rusty military surplus airplanes parked on the tarmac.

Matt Jablonowski, Conner Air Lines's director of maintenance, has heard enough wing-and-a-prayer tales to take them with a grain of salt. "The stories tend to get embellished over the years," Jablonowski chuckles, "but you have to be careful about doubting too much. I remember Gus telling me about a Curtiss C-46 he and another guy were trying to fly out of San Juan when one of the tanks in the wing exploded and raised the wing up about twice as high as it should be. Gus claimed that he drilled holes in the wing and used thread bolts to pull it together into an airfoil shape. They called it the Frankenstein wing because the bolts were sticking out, and they said they flew it up to Miami that way.

"My first reaction was, 'Yeah, sure guys, why don't you just have another scotch?' But then months later I was cleaning up one of Gus's old warehouses, going through a pile of old wings, and sure enough A well, I don't have to tell you what I found at the bottom."

In addition to his maintenance responsibilities at Conner Air Lines, Jablonowski recently has taken on the additional duty of guarding the memory of his dead boss. For example, he points out that even though Conner, like many other cargo company owners in the early days, had to repair airplanes with whatever was handy, he was knowledgeable enough to pull it off on most occasions and recognize the limits on others. There were even limits to happy hour: Conner would never let himself or any worker get near an airplane until twelve hours after putting the cork back into the bottle. "Gus knew that people who have a couple of drinks and mess around with airplanes can suddenly find themselves missing a hand," Jablonowski notes.

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