Rough Skies

Larry Wansley--former Marine, cop and FBI agent--has his biggest task ahead of him: making American Airlines safe from terrorism

It began as a bright, promising September morning on the sixth floor of the Dallas-based American Airlines headquarters. Staff members were sipping coffee and mingling as they anticipated the morning's operational meeting. Soon they would be discussing routine items such as flight schedules, maintenance updates and weather conditions at airports around the world from which more than 700 of their planes would be flying.

Larry Wansley, managing director of corporate security, had arrived early, pleased that on that day he would not be jetting off to San Francisco or London or Rome to address some new crisis. In his ninth year with the world's largest commercial airline, overseeing a staff that had grown to 75, he welcomed those rare days when he was not required to travel.

At 7:45 a.m., however, the leisurely atmosphere changed dramatically. From the airline's nearby command center came an urgent call. American Flight 11, carrying 92 passengers from Boston's Logan Airport, Wansley was told, had been hijacked. Betty Ong, a 45-year-old flight attendant on board, had managed to phone her company supervisor, reporting at least three hijackers with weapons and several passengers injured.

Larry Wansley carries the nickname "Mandrake," which many thought he acquired because of past deeds of crime-fighting heroism. Actually, he got it from a comic strip.
Mark Graham
Larry Wansley carries the nickname "Mandrake," which many thought he acquired because of past deeds of crime-fighting heroism. Actually, he got it from a comic strip.
Shades and a smile: Wansley, here working undercover in Jackson, Mississippi, learned to deal with all manner of underworld operatives while he was an FBI special agent.
Shades and a smile: Wansley, here working undercover in Jackson, Mississippi, learned to deal with all manner of underworld operatives while he was an FBI special agent.

From the vice chairman's office, Wansley phoned Danny Defenbaugh, special agent-in-charge of the Dallas FBI office. It was the first step in the well-researched, secret hijack-response plan all commercial airlines have in place.

As he began relaying the information, Wansley heard a sudden chorus of muted screams from an adjacent conference room. Several female employees, eyes fixed on a television, had just watched a plane fly into the North Tower of New York's World Trade Center.

Phone still in hand, the security director emerged in time to see a cloud of black smoke billowing from the building. In downtown Dallas, Defenbaugh's secretary had entered his office and turned on his TV. "Did you see that?" the FBI agent asked Wansley.

Neither, however, connected the gruesome images they were watching with their own immediate concern. The initial television reports were suggesting that it had been a small, private plane that had flown into the Trade Center. What they had to focus on was how to deal with American's hijacked Boeing 767. Someone else, they agreed, would have to deal with New York's problems.

Then, in a mind-numbing moment as the two longtime friends continued discussing plans, a second plane appeared on their respective TV screens, banking sharply as it headed directly for the South Tower. "Oh, my God," Wansley said.

There was a brief, stunned silence on the other end of the line as the second plane disappeared into a mountainous fireball. Finally, Defenbaugh spoke, his usually booming voice barely a whisper. "The ball game just changed."

Even as the FBI agent made his dramatic proclamation, Wansley was learning that the first plane to collide into the Trade Center had, in fact, been the hijacked American flight.

Thus began the longest day in his life. "At the moment I saw that second plane--United Flight 175--hit the South Tower," he says, "I thought to myself, 'We're at war.'"

For a man whose adult life has played out like a made-for-television movie--filled with adventurous escapades from his detective days with the Compton (California) Police Department, a decade of undercover work as an FBI agent, player counselor and security director for the Dallas Cowboys and manager of security for pop-music diva Whitney Houston's 1988 world tour--September 11, 2001, will forever be the day burned most indelibly into his memory. It is the event that now drives him in the toughest job imaginable, one that will never be complete: to make American Airlines, and the skies through which its planes travel, safe. It's a daunting task, but one that somehow neatly fits the man who has always battled larger-than-life villains.

Even so, more than a year after 9/11, he is still occasionally wakened by a recurring nightmare. In it, he is standing alone on the familiar streets of New York, where once he posed as an underworld wiseguy, when suddenly he hears the roar of a low-flying plane. He looks up in time to see it explode into the side of the South Tower at full throttle. There are flames and smoke and distant screams as people, having jumped from windows in insane desperation, fall to their deaths. He wonders what those on board and those just settling into their offices had been thinking in that last moment before the impact.

In the dream there is never an answer.


Before that infamous day, the journey of Larry Wansley, 60, to the American Airlines corporate headquarters had been one serendipitous adrenaline rush after another. The energetic and personable man from Festus, Missouri, who once dreamed of being an engineer, shakes his head as he admits that he arrived at his life's work by accident.

"I'd just gotten out of the Marines," he says, "and was delivering mail for the Los Angeles Postal Service while taking night courses at L.A. City College. One afternoon after work I ran into an old service buddy and suggested we catch up over a couple of beers. He explained that he was on his way to the civic center where he was going to take an exam, never bothering to mention what it was for. With nothing better to do, I tagged along."

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