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.

Hemming took up where Conner's Washington-connected intelligence source left off. Conner Air Lines workers say he set up an operation to tail the suspect pilot and monitor the radio communications of another airline office where the pilot was working. Hemming reported some findings to Conner that seemed intriguing but which proved nothing and could not be substantiated.

When he was not snooping on the pilot, Hemming was searching for motives behind the FAA's harassment of Conner, at first taking into account the enmity between a curmudgeonly old-timer and bureaucrats who viewed him as an anachronism who had to go. Hemming discarded that possibility in favor of a much more sinister one involving the CIA and drug trafficking, according to Conner Air Lines employees. At Corrosion Corner, still rumored to be a center of CIA influence, he found a good base on which to build his theory.

Many of the Corner's denizens accept reports of drug trafficking by the CIA as self-evident truths. Allegations of CIA involvement in the drug trade date from the late 1960s, when the agency maintained close ties to several Asian heroin traffickers. During the Iran-contra affair, more allegations surfaced, some of them involving Southern Air Transport, a Miami-based airline once controlled by the CIA and contracted in the mid-1980s to fly supplies to the contra rebels fighting the Marxist government of Nicaragua. Southern Air provided the plane that was downed in Nicaragua on October 6, 1986, an incident that helped unravel the White House's secret support for the rebels. The company's planes also clandestinely flew missiles to Iran in 1986. In addition, Southern Air was linked to a CIA scheme allegedly involving the transport of weapons to the contras and cocaine to the United States. (Company officials have denied the guns-and-drugs allegation and no legal action has ever been taken against the firm.)

Southern Air Transport's offices are located less than a block from Conner Air Lines. The two carriers occasionally borrowed each other's equipment and personnel. And Southern Air's president, William Langton, reportedly knew Gus Conner well. (Langton's secretary said his travel schedule would not permit him to be interviewed for this article.)

In building his conspiracy theory, Hemming was able to draw on more than Conner's friendly relations with and close proximity to airline working for the CIA.

Like Southern Air, Conner's company was ever ready to serve the United States government. And like its neighbor, it had flown contra supply flights. Records from those flights show that between August and November of 1985, two Conner DC-6s flew several trips from New Orleans to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where the contra supply efforts were based.

Geneva Conner, who kept the airline's files, says that her husband made only "aboveboard" deliveries of humanitarian supplies, which were permitted by federal law. (In 1984 Congress banned military aid to the contras, a prohibition ignored by Lt. Col. Oliver North.) Matt Jablonowski, who was on Conner Air Lines's first contra supply flight from Miami to Tegucigalpa via New Orleans, remembers the extreme security precautions that awaited the airplane at the New Orleans airport: "We were met by just about everybody with an earphone and a dark suit and glasses that you can imagine. They even had a SWAT team in the parking lot. They even led dogs through every inch of the airplane and tore apart the cargo before it was loaded. I don't know who they thought they were going to meet."

Jablonowski adds that the cargo was "no big deal, just boots and Pampers and baby food, things like that. No guns." A U.S. Customs air cargo manifest from a later flight appears to confirm his statement. Dated August 27, 1985, it lists the plane's cargo as "617 pieces of relief goods and supplies."

But Conner was flying at a time when other cargo carriers were illegally transporting arms to the contras. Furthermore, some of those same airlines were involved in transporting cocaine back to the United States, according to sworn testimony provided to various congressional committees. Nearly everyone who knew Conner will volunteer at some point during an interview that he was never involved in drug trafficking. "Gus just wasn't the type that would ever countenance any kind of drug operation," says Howard Davis, Conner's old friend who took over management of the airline after his death. "But I believe that this was one of the things that people representing the government wanted him to do back in the contra days."

Davis alludes to a series of late-night meetings in 1985, reportedly held in Conner Air Lines's hangar, between Conner and several unidentified men who may or may not have been representing the government. He declines, however, to reveal who told him about the meetings or what transpired during them. The secret, he says, died with Conner. "Unfortunately, when they came to talk to Gus, he would shoo everyone out of the office," Davis adds. "There were no other witnesses."

The far-fetched theory that made the rounds at Conner Air Lines A and which company employees say was promoted by Gerry Hemming A holds that when Conner refused to fly CIA-backed drug missions, the agency retaliated by calling friends at the FAA and telling them to get rid of the obstacle. The FAA supposedly complied by intensifying its investigation of Conner in 1986. A man who knew Conner for years and who refuses to be identified says that even before Hemming's arrival, Conner received "some damn good information" that indicated a multiagency conspiracy. Conner Air Lines officials claim the man has substantial ties to the intelligence community, but like Hemming, he will not discuss his evidence or its source. What he will do is give advice to anyone planning to dig deeper.

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