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In memoriam: J. Lynn Helms

J. Lynn Helms, who served as Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) during the first years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, died on December 11, 2011. Helms played an instrumental role in breaking the 1981 strike by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO). A former Marine Corps fighter pilot and business executive, who had little sympathy for labor unions in general and who believed that there was no place for a union organization of air traffic controllers at the FAA, he helped persuade President Ronald Reagan and top administration officials that they could weather a controllers’ strike, even if it meant firing more than two-thirds of the workforce.

By Joseph A. McCartin

I am often asked whether PATCO could have won its strike if it had managed to persuade another one thousand or so controllers to join its walkout. Although I don’t like answering counterfactual questions, I usually answer this one by saying that I don’t think that would have made a difference. The U.S. government was determined to break the strike whatever it took. It would not give in to pressure from a union. No one better exemplified that determination than Helms. On May 3, 2002, I had a chance to interview him at his Westport, Connecticut home for Collision Course. There he recounted for me a key episode in the 1981 strike: his response to a decision by Canadian air traffic controllers in Gander, Newfoundland, on August 10, 1981, one week into the U.S. strike, to refuse to handle flights into the United States. Their boycott threatened to block air travel between the U.S. and Europe and could have helped the U.S. controllers win their strike. The Americans were determined to break the boycott. Helms led the response. He arranged for U.S. military personnel to move into position to take over the traffic usually handled by the Gander controllers if they boycott wasn’t ended. Here is how he explained it:

So I got on the phone and called Verne Orr, who was secretary at the Air Force. And I said “I can’t get a hold of [Secretary of Defense] Cap [Weinberger], I need your help.” And he said, “I’ve given you so many controllers.” And I said, “Well, I need your help for something else.” And he said, “Well, what’s that?” And I said… “I want two AWACS airplanes, and I want them at [Loring] Air Force base in Maine. And I’d like to have one of them by 10 o’clock in the morning and the other by 1 o’clock tomorrow. And he said, “Lynn, what the hell have you got in mind?” And I said, “I’m going to take over air traffic control in the North Atlantic …. I’m going to put controllers in ‘em and with your in-flight refueling, why we’ll stay there, and those two airplanes are going to control everything that across the North Atlantic from 30,000 feet.” He started laughing. And he said, “I think you’re serious.” And [he] said “how long you gonna want ‘em?” And I said “Oh, at least two weeks.”

Helms then called the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Thomas B. Hayward, who agreed to make an Aegis cruiser available to the FAA, stationed off the coast of Iceland for a month, directing transatlantic air traffic from its communications center. Having secured this help, Helms called a counterpart in the Canadian government the next day to explain that the U.S. was ready to take over Canadian airspace if Canadian controllers didn’t clear flights to the United States.

I told him I had two AWACs airplanes coming in, I got an Aegis cruiser coming in that will be departing at 12 o’clock that will be 14 hours steaming up there off Boston to pick up my controllers and in another 6 and a half hours they’d be on station up off Iceland. And he was silent for a minute, “You son of a bitch,” he said. “You did all of this this morning.” I said, “Yup.” I said “God damn it, Mac, if we’re going to run these shops, let’s run ‘em….”

Faced with this threat and pressure from their own government, the Canadian controllers suspended the boycott. Did Helms’s intervention turn the tide? It is hard to say definitively. The odds were against the U.S. controllers from the beginning. And it is unlikely that the Canadians could have kept up their boycott long enough to rescue their U.S. counterparts. But whether Helms’s threat was the key or not, one thing is clear: his actions showed how far the Reagan administration would go to defeat the PATCO walkout. Thirty years later the effects of that strike still loom large. Unquestionably, J. Lynn Helms was instrumental in shaping the legacy of that turning point event.

Joseph A. McCartin is Associate Professor of History at Georgetown University and Director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. He is the author of Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America.

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