Rough Skies

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

In short order, the situation would worsen. A second American jet, Flight 77, had departed Washington's Dulles Airport but, instead of continuing on to its Los Angeles destination, changed course and crashed into the Pentagon. In Dallas, members of the Care Team would have another 64 families to contact. Then came word that yet another hijacked United airliner, its apparent target the White House, had crashed in a rural area of Pennsylvania.

"I think everyone in the command center was wondering what kind of nightmare we were involved in," Wansley recalls, " but the way they went about their business was remarkable. We were all numb, unable to really grasp the magnitude of what was happening, but because there was so much to be done, there wasn't time to really stop and think about it."

At one point, he remembers, he was carrying on simultaneous conversations on three phones, talking with an FBI agent in Washington, a CIA investigator and a representative of the State Department.

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.

Even before federally ordered to do so, American began grounding its entire fleet, ordering pilots to immediately find the nearest airport and land. "It was a logistical horror," Wansley says. "We had planes scattered all over the world."

In fact, the runways of major airports were turning into huge parking lots.

"We had," Wansley says, "entered uncharted territory." Never before had the fleets of all commercial airlines--as well as private planes--been grounded at the same time. Would airports be able to handle the sudden influx of arrivals? Would the airline company be able to find accommodations for stranded passengers? How long might it be before the mother of all traffic snarls would end?

Most important, why had this tragedy occurred?


For almost a decade, FBI Special Agent Wansley used so many false identities that at times he found it difficult to remember who he really was. During his career as an undercover agent he was involved in such highly publicized cases as the search for kidnapped publishing heiress Patty Hearst and members of the Symbionese Liberation Army and the investigation of the murder of San Antonio federal Judge John Wood. Posing at various times as an executive of a shady Hollywood-based investment firm, a militant street hustler, the president of a trucking company, a nightclub owner, a newspaper publisher, even an operator of a massage parlor, Wansley found himself in the company of high-rolling members of the New York Mafia, Southern redneck crime figures, law enforcement officials involved in illegal activity, pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers, stone killers and con artists of every ilk. Briefly, he even played the role of a Baylor football player in an effort to identify gamblers who were allegedly approaching team members for information.

When the FBI broke new investigative ground in the late '70s with an elaborate and highly successful reverse sting operation called Operation Tarpit, Wansley served as the point man, posing as a West Hollywood businessman in the market for stolen goods. For two years burglars and hijackers came to him with truckloads of stolen merchandise--guns, jewelry, clothing, cigarettes, liquor, automobiles, counterfeit bonds and money orders, fake IDs and credit cards--which, in time, resulted in more than 300 arrests and recovery of a record $42 million worth of stolen property.

The culmination of the operation, Wansley says, was an elaborate party to which all of his "customers" were invited. "We rented this huge hall where there would be music, food, champagne, the works, and sent out invitations telling of free cruises and gifts that would be given away." The bad guys came running. Once the guests had all arrived and the exits were manned by fellow agents and Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies, the arrests began.

As is the case in all undercover work, there eventually came a time when it was feared that he had become too familiar to too many West Coast underworld figures. In addition to his successful tenure as a buyer of stolen goods, he had mingled with and made cases against kiddie-porn producers, drug dealers and counterfeiters. It was time, the Bureau advised, to move to a new territory.


By midday inside the American command center, duties were being carried out with military-like precision. "It was chaotic, but it was organized," Wansley remembers. "Everyone knew his or her job and was getting it done."

Once the fast-paced flow of information had begun, the security director turned much of his attention to the needs of FBI investigators. He was soon placing calls to intelligence sources he had developed throughout the world in an effort to help learn more about the hijackers and their mission, searching passenger lists for any clue they might provide, all while continuing to coordinate with operational department officials attempting to secure lodging and ground transportation for American's stranded customers.

It would be 72 hours before he finally heard the voice of a person he'd badly wanted to speak with since the insanity had begun. Rich Davis, the chief of United Airlines security, was on the phone.

"I could tell from the sound of his voice that he was absolutely exhausted," Wansley recalls. "We all were. But, just to talk with someone--probably the only other person in the world who understood what I was feeling at the time--was a much-needed lift.

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