Pyrrhic Victory

Ed was actually threatening to kill me - or worse. It was a red faced, white knuckled threat and I might have taken it more seriously if I didn't know Ed so well. I was on my way to work, an evening shift at Big Time Tower, and had just arrived at our parking lot entrance. I stopped at the security gate to swipe my badge and enter the code. There stood Ed, glaring at me through the window. His eyes, well past their flash point, were now in a full burn. His voice sounded high pitched and strained; like an animal caught in a trap which, in a sense, he was. His breath, as he leaned on my car door, was unavoidable...and smelled of beer.

Behind Ed, crowded together like a bunch of red carnival balloons, were a dozen other faces I recognized. Most of the guys had been friends, trusted coworkers and confidants. I knew their wives and their girlfriends. I knew how much they could drink before they fell and how much pressure they could take before they cracked. But now they were all clutching signs, chanting and punching at the sky with clenched fists. It was the very same sky wherein they had once plied their trade. The sky no longer their limit; things were different now.

It was a Summer hot, sooty and stinking airport afternoon in late September of '81. The air smelled of bus exhaust and jet fuel as a B727 swung low over the lot, landing gear extended, on a visual approach to one of the runways. The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization – PATCO – in what may have been one of the worst miscalculations in the history of organized labor, had, on August 3rd, lead nearly 13,000 of its members off the job and up the gallows steps; even helping them with their nooses. Then, standing together defiantly, they waited for President Ronald Reagan to pull the lever.

Reagan was pissed. He saw the strike as an illegal act. Whether it was or not is, to this day, a subject of debate. If nothing else, it was to default on the oath we all swore to when we signed onto the job. That was enough for me.

It was also a threat to public safety and an already fragile economy. Reagan wanted to fire the strikers immediately but was convinced to give them 48 hours in which to return to work. Good advice. About 1200 came back under the deadline. The rest who walked out the door were never to be allowed back in again.

Annoyed, I reached around Ed to swipe my badge. Two local Police officers leaning on the hood of their nearby cruiser watched indifferently as I pushed on the keypad. Since the strike, both police and angry strikers were regular fixtures at the entrance to our parking lot. The police would only sit and watch unless things seemed to be getting out of control. Things occasionally did get out of control but not at our parking lot.

The gate opened and I went to work. It was going to be another exhausting night.

When PATCO struck on August 3rd, the rest of us, supervisors, staff members and a few non-striking controllers were immediately thrown into an adrenaline fueled rush through extended shifts and expanded work weeks. It was a test of endurance. Some guys eventually stopped going home after each shift because it wasn’t worth the long drive for such a short time there. They brought bedrolls to work and slept in the break room. Nobody complained though. This was some kind of war over the air traffic system and we were just as committed to keeping it moving as those in opposition were to shutting it down.

FAA’s strike contingency plan kicked in smoothly. There was an immediate 50 percent reduction in airline schedules during peak periods, tight control over corporate and general aviation traffic and reduced military activity. Within a week after the strike, several military controllers arrived at Big Time. They brought with them an eagerness to work, a zeal for the cause and a level of commitment to win that matched our own. On their heels came a few airline pilots who had been furloughed from their jobs due to the strike. These were not happy guys but, with their in-depth knowledge of the aviation system, they were soon able to help us by performing flight data functions or clearance delivery. Forced out of their well compensated careers, they too harbored the same "take no prisoners" attitude that got the rest of us through each day. Since I was a training specialist, I was temporarily removed from shift rotation and returned to the training department to start giving these people the basics they'd need to begin their tower and TRACON training. Between classes, I’d go back to the control rooms to help provide meal breaks. People were growing fatigued but no less motivated.

Meanwhile, out on the street - In hope of gaining negotiating leverage, PATCO held news conferences and tried frightening the public by predicting chaos in the sky. “Aluminum showers,” (the popular “insider” euphemism for midair collisions) and other mishaps would soon happen due to the unqualified and inexperienced workforce. To the union’s chagrin, such things never occurred. Almost perhaps - but not quite. Reports of intimidation and interference with the system by strikers began coming in from across the country as PATCO grew more desperate. The FAA refused to negotiate with the union as long as the strike continued.

At Big Time, threats and intimidation were nearly routine. Controllers reported being followed home after evening shifts. The purpose? Just so you knew that they knew where you lived. Spouses sometimes received anonymous late night phone calls and were told things like "We know where your kids go to school." It was all part of the game and not taken too seriously. However, the game was taken to a much higher level at other locations. We were advised to be alert for "phantom controllers."

This game needed only one unemployed and irrationally committed controller with nothing more than a portable, aviation band transceiver and a decent view of the airport. With just one well timed transmission on the tower frequency; an aircraft could, for example, be instructed to "Go around" or "Cancel takeoff clearance." Depending on what else was happening at the time, the result could be anything from a costly inconvenience to a catastrophe. Their brief but effective work done, the phantom controller would simply vanish...till the next time.

Inside the tower, time passed quickly. Within weeks we were providing on-the-job training to the pilots and military controllers and they were becoming qualified on more and more positions of operation. Eventually, most of the military folks became certified on all tower and TRACON positions. It helped a lot - keeping in mind they were only on loan to us and that new FAA recruits were still many months away. Still...traffic volume grew back to and beyond pre-strike levels at an alarming rate. Everyone was getting tired but their determination never diminished. In fact; each trip though the parking lot picket lines, being mocked, threatened and cursed at, seemed to energize an otherwise flagging workforce.

In time, the picket lines gradually dissipated and the system came back together. Soon the traffic volume was higher than ever and, unlike our workforce, was growing steadily. Like many others; I was exhausted, burning out and in need of a change of pace. Every now and then we'd get updates on what some of our former coworkers were now doing. One had become an auto parts salesman. One was working for a roofing company. I never heard what became of the rest but I missed them. I missed them all. I suppose we had won the war but, in many ways, it was a pyrrhic victory. Much was lost. Good friends, actually lost well ahead of the strike, were now gone without a trace. Missing along with them was their irreplaceable depth of experience. The drive for victory had left my personal life in turmoil and ironically, most of the FAA's pre-strike problems remained.

So Ed wanted to kill me. Had I known on that hot September afternoon in 1981 what I would know a few all consuming years later; I might have told him not to bother – I’d probably end up doing it myself.

© NLA Factor, 2010


Anonymous said...

No Longer,

Not sure who's writing this (though I have an idea or two) but you're doing an excellent job, both in the writing and in the storytelling. "... putting out a toenail fire with a hammer." etc. cracked me up. Might have something to do with this ingrown pain I have...

There were a number of years when I was maintaining currency on 26 positions (10 radars w/ associated positions plus all tower). You covered that really well, and few ever have.

Keep 'em coming, No Longer. Nice job.

Barbara Walton

No Longer a Factor said...

Twenty-six positions? Yikes! That sounds more complicated than the Kama Sutra! With that, at least no one is too concerned over your phraseology. Speed control might still be important though. Hmmm. Maybe a future Blog topic.

This writing thing is all new territory for me so I truly appreciate your comments!

Glad to see you're retired. Its a great job and it gives me the time to do such pointless things as this Blog!

Take care of that "ingrown pain." Wine usually works for me.

Cheers ~ NLA Factor

Kevin said...

I too enjoy your reminiscing. Do you find that you recall much more than you expected once you take to piecing the events back together.

At the time of the strike my parents lived just a few miles from the Center in Farmington. I'm not sure if the strikers were removed their positions outside the gate but after a short while they were gathering in the parking lot of an entirely different building in town for their meetings.

I had no idea then that I'd someday be working at zmp and coming to understand that which so frustrated them to cause them to do what they did.

Nice piece.

No Longer a Factor said...

Hi Kevin! Thanks for stopping by again. To answer your question - yes. I definitely find myself back "in the moment" when I start thinking about things that have happened. In the case of the strike, its a moment I'd rather not be back in but, at the same time, I do need to remember as much as I can about it all. Anyone who was connected to the strike, even if only tangentially, should never forget. It appears that would include you.

I'll bet it was a surprise to find yourself working at ZMP. Those frustrations you've come to understand are the same ones we saw before and after 1981. Somehow, the cycle needs to be broken. I'm no longer a factor but folks like you could make the much needed difference.

Thanks again for reading and for writing.

Cheers ~ NLAF