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.

But Conner wasn't above pranks, such as those occasions when he and Art Ford would take off from Miami and Conner would try to scare his friend by suddenly shutting down one of the plane's engines. Ford laughs at the incidents now, but at the time he was furious. The stunts pulled by Conner and other cargo cowboys also failed to amuse Federal Aviation Administration officials given the unpleasant job of trying to regulate and police the unscheduled carriers. "Everybody in the unscheduled area had disagreements with the FAA," Ford remembers. "Right after the war, when they started this unscheduled business, the FAA just wasn't prepared. They didn't have any regulations. As soon as we'd do something they thought was improper, why, then they'd put a regulation down. Then we'd figure out a way to get around it, and they'd close the loophole. It was a cat-and-mouse deal for a long time. And there was animosity between us and them."

In Conner's case, that animosity was never sublimated. Jablonowski jokes that his former boss must have punched everybody at the airport at one time or another, but in truth the abuse heaped on pesky FAA regulators was mostly verbal. In the early years, when Conner knew many of the officials, the exchanges were often good-natured. They became more heated as the FAA old-timers were replaced by younger bureaucrats who didn't know Conner and didn't care to. They just wanted him to follow the rules as they interpreted them. Jablonowski restates the case he must have heard Conner make again and again: "Gus was in this business long enough to know why certain regulations were written. Hell, he helped write them in many instances. He knew the intent of each regulation as the guys in the FAA did not, because they were still wiping their noses when the rules were made. So when they would come in and tell Gus that he had to do this or that, he would browbeat them until they left. He wasn't afraid to expose their ignorance."

Jablonowski and others who knew Conner concede that he could have avoided some of his subsequent problems with the FAA by toning down his rhetoric. Howard Davis, another former pilot for the airline, has heard stories demonstrating how ugly Conner became in his dealings with the FAA. "One day this black inspector walks into the office and says something to Gus," Davis relates. "Gus was behind his desk. He immediately called the local office of the FAA and said, very loudly, 'Your nigger's here.' Whoa! I mean whoa! He was no diplomat."

Conner's racist bile apparently drew retaliation from the FAA in the form of pestering, but not until 1986 did the the skirmishes burgeon into full-fledged war. Nearly everyone at the airline claims that was the year the FAA began a campaign of singling out Conner for a series of investigations and inspections that amounted to harassment and that did not end until Conner Air Lines was finally grounded on September 1, 1992. The company's planes have not flown since, and the business is facing an uncertain future pending the outcome of a court case aimed at lifting the FAA's order.

FAA officials maintain they were just doing their jobs. "It's not true that we were out to get Conner," says Eddie Thomas, managing attorney for the FAA's southern regional office in Atlanta. "It's just that to protect the public, we require a minimum amount of safety, and there was strong evidence that Conner Air Lines was not meeting that." Thomas admits that some of the trouble could have been avoided had Conner been more cooperative with Miami FAA agents, but he insists his agency "never got personal."

Conner, needless to say, did take it personally, and looked for ways to fight back. One weapon at his disposal was a video camera. "When the FAA came to inspect aircraft, Gus would videotape what they were doing so that he would have a record," Howard Davis says. "Well, the FAA guys did not like it one bit. They said, 'You can't do that,' and when he replied, 'Oh, yes I can,' they took him to court to stop it."

Conner won the case on appeal to the National Transportation Safety Board. In the 1986 decision, the NTSB not only ruled that Conner could continue taping the inspections, but also demanded that the FAA pay $27,000 of his legal fees. The FAA never forgave him, according to his widow and former employees, who say that continued harassment culminated in the agency's "special emphasis inspection" of Conner Air Lines's records in March 1991, followed by a barrage of letters demanding information about possible rules violations. The FAA examined records of mandatory flights designed to test the proficiency of Conner's pilots. The agency found some of those records "fraudulent, or intentionally false," since many of the tests were never conducted.

The FAA's charges set in motion a complicated legal battle. Agreements between the two sides were reached, followed by more FAA complaints and finally the order grounding the cargo carrier. Conner Air Lines's appeal of that order is still pending in federal court.

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