Keep Your Penny

Sometimes a simple old song becomes an express lane, taking me back to my most distant memories. Sometimes it's just a small sound, a scent or maybe even the cent I recently found among some change in my pocket. They can trigger thoughts of what once was. Such thoughts usually come back to me in pieces; like fractions of a dollar or fragments of a decades old nightmare. That damned penny though. Suddenly everything came back to me again, with absolute clarity.

It was Monday, August 3rd, 1981. I was awake and drinking coffee behind my house at 4:00 AM. The air was comfortably cool and the sky was about as clear as I'd ever seen it for a normally hazy August morning. It was the kind of morning when I'd usually be anxious to meet my carpool buddies and head into Big Time to greet the incoming lines of arriving flights or watch the departures line up at the runways. Not this morning though. I was anxious alright but it was an uneasy kind of anxious rather than eagerness. I watched a large jet descending in the direction of Big Time Airport, probably a freighter, and wondered who was working in the TRACON.

My coffee was cold because I had made it more than an hour earlier. I went back inside to start another pot. Thinking maybe I might have missed the phone ringing, I checked for messages. Nothing. It was nearly 5:00 now and still no word. Finally, at about 6:15, the phone rang. It was the mid-shift Supervisor. The strike was on. He said he thought there were enough controllers coming in to meet the reduced morning demand but said I should be there at 11:00. Heartburn. At first; I thought it was the coffee.

So; PATCO pulled it off and got all those controllers to walk out. I got to thinking about the ones on my team who were probably now on the picket lines. They were good friends and great controllers; most of them with families at home. I wasn't so sure at that time but they were also soon to be unemployed. It was time to shower and get ready for an entirely different world at work. The world I knew all the way up to my most recent shift was gone and would never return.

Ever been offered a penny for your thoughts? I know I have; probably several times during this lifetime of mine. So many people made these and other promises they were truly unable to keep (I've made a few myself). Foolishly, I sometimes bought them anyway and even let 'em keep the change. There was, however, one particular promise made that I could neither buy or sell because the cost was way too high. Lots of folks bought it anyway.

Today I have thoughts like; who would test the limits of their car's airbags by driving into a bridge abutment? Or who would test the limits of their employer by participating in an illegal job action? The answer to that question might be; people who believed they'd been short changed.

The year was 1981; a mere 35 years back. To me though, thirty-five years was a lifetime ago as I was just about 35 years old at the time. The promise was; if we all went out on strike (which obviously was not going to happen), the Federal Government couldn't possibly fire us. The union's demands would grudgingly be met and everyone would return to work in triumph. Sweetened by the illusion of a controller's indispensability, the deal was tempting. Unfortunately, too many controllers, previously known for their sound judgment, took it. That never made any sense to me. These were people who's professional judgment was nearly always keen and correct; guiding tens of thousands of lives safely across the skies. Yet, when it came to another judgment call, affecting a relatively small but intensely personal circle of family and friends, they failed terribly.

Of an aviation system without controllers, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) Union President Bob Poli was quoted in the news media as saying; "The skies will be silent." If he really believed that and the rest of PATCO's propaganda; I'd have to say he was a bigger fool than I thought. Poli was simply a hustler, peddling another "get rich quick" scheme to a group of people who were hungry to swallow the union's horribly flawed rationale. He was a confidence man who managed to win the confidence of too many good and trusting people.

The union had its battle plan . . . but so did the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration. Theirs was obviously more shrewd and sensible. To this day, one of my biggest regrets was that FAA Management, at least at my facility, never shared some significant parts of that plan with the pre-strike workforce. It might have made a difference in the outcome. We who were committed to staying on the job were left to recite a weak and hard to believe argument against the strike. "Don't believe PATCO. You really WILL be fired. The FAA can't lose." I wasn't so sure I believed it myself.

Had they known there would be military controllers and furloughed airline pilots sent into the facilities to help us, more controllers might have stayed on. Had they known the airlines were prepared to make temporary scheduling cutbacks and that general aviation activity would be severely restricted, more controllers might have stayed on. Had they not grossly underestimated their adversaries (Ronald Reagan, Drew Lewis, et al.) or wildly overestimated the level of support they'd receive from other labor unions and the public, more controllers might have stayed on.

They should also have figured out that the FAA had little to lose in a strike. This wasn't like the steel industry or auto manufacturing, where a strike could cost the company millions of dollars in lost production and/or sales. The FAA would simply terminate a large number of highly paid controllers and hire fresh ones at a fraction of the cost. Sure, there'd be years of training ahead and lots of overtime paid to those of us who stayed on. Still; I suspect PATCO's job action saved Uncle Sam some money. The real costs, in cash and convenience, would be borne by the aviation industry, those businesses who relied on it and the flying public.

Fear was the currency that bought many controller's decision to support a strike. The more militant union members promised serious consequences for those who stayed on the job. PATCO's faithful would be waiting and watching at our employee parking lot on that August morning. Lists would be made and there would be trouble for those who were seen coming to work. Again though, the FAA was one move ahead of the union.

Even 35 years ago, Big Time Airport was a huge place with thousands of public parking spaces. Our Management made arrangements with the Airport Authority that, in the event of a strike, we could use the vast system of pay-parking garages, free of charge, for a couple of weeks. PATCO's plans to picket at our parking lot on August 3rd would have little effect. Some of us parked there anyway. This resulted in nothing more than the loud exchange of expletives, plus a report to the folks we were relieving about who was picketing and what to expect out there.

 All the things they didn't know, coupled with the fact that our facility Management and a significant number of controllers were fed up with the pre-strike drama, lead to a perfect storm that would tear PATCO apart, along with the lives of so many good people. Sadly, most of us who stayed on had actually hoped the strike would happen. The threats, intimidation, hatred and hubris would finally stop - at least for a while.

I suppose its a good thing this all took place 35 years ago rather than in today's world. These days, warning the Federal Government of plans to shut down the U. S. air transportation system might be seen as a terrorist threat rather than a relatively simple labor/management dispute. Sure; PATCO was ultimately decertified as a union and a lot of people lost their jobs but at least no one was charged with insurrection.

The controllers I grew into my profession with were close knit, professional coequals and I miss many of them. The August 3rd strike and Bob Poli's worthless promises are now a full lifetime behind me. And what of the controller's union we all knew back then? If there was a point of origin for all the high stakes lying, bad decisions, blind faith and ill conceived actions that ruined so many lives; it might look like this . . .

These are my thoughts. Keep your penny. 

© NLA Factor, 2016


Dave Starr said...

Thanks a lot for sharing this. Very few of us outside the actual controller community ever knew very much about these days, except of course, the massive crop of political "hay" that Ronald Reagan harvested. Keep writing

No Longer a Factor said...

Dave! Thanks for reading and for your comments. It appears you experienced those days but were "outside the actual controller community." You've gone and poked my curiosity. Were you in a line of work that was somehow tangential to air traffic control? I've often wondered about just how badly the strike affected those who's businesses relied on aviation to make things work. No doubt it caused plenty of collateral damage well beyond the aviation industry. I never heard much about that though.

Speaking of Reagan; I read an interesting Op-Ed about the PATCO strike a few years ago. The writer pointed out that Reagan was a newly minted President when it all went down. The Soviet Union was watching him closely to see if they'd be dealing with a cardboard cutout movie actor or a guy who could make tough calls in real life and, if necessary, be willing to step out into the street for a showdown. As it turned out; he was no pushover. Unfortunately, PATCO learned that lesson too late.

Thanks again Dave.

Take Care,

Dave Starr said...

Good morning (Friday, 5 August) from the land of mangoes, coconuts and tropical storms, the Philippines (all's clear today, thankfully).

We have several areas of minor kinship. I'm a New Jersey guy who joined the USAF near the time when you did (October, 1965). I was already a private pilot and had literally grown up with aviation in my soul ... lived across the street from a little grass strip in North Jersey (N07, still very much alive today). When I enlisted I made the ATC career field my first choice but I found out I had only 20/400 vision in one eye (wonder how it was I had a current FAA Medical Certificate and I had passed a number of enlistment physicals ... mysteries of life).

Anyway I was shunted into the aircraft maintenance field for about 8 years until I was able to make a change to perhaps the best enlisted job in the USAF at the time, Flight Simulation tech. In addition to all the computer and mechanical repair aspects (and being able to "fly" the machine at will) we were required to know many of the basic procedures from the 7110-65, becuase when our actual aircrew training was being conducted, FS techs provided a rudimentary ATC experience for the aircrews from our console outside "the box" and in MAC, where I served most of my time, we introduced many ATC-oriented "problem scenarios" to test the aircrews performance ... vector them toward high terrain and the conveniently "forget" to issue any further clearance, etc.

So long story short, that's my tenuous connection, I dabbled around the edges of ATC in the USAF environment for many years. Plus, I'm an unabashed ATC "fan boy" wanna be, LoL.

Regarding the 1981 strike and subsequent firing, I had by that time taken off the uniform and was working as a GS employee for the USAF and I frankly never thought PATCO or the resident would/could do what they did ... until, son of bitch, it happened! It was like watching a TV drama set close to home that very suddenly became real. (IIRC I think I started being a more cooperative, less argumentative employee the day after the firing), LoL.

Keep writing, whenever the spiirt moves you, people do read your stuff.

Be well

Paul! said...

I'm so glad to see another post from the last few days! I just stumbled upon this blog a few weeks ago and am almost completely caught up, and I was worried the stories were coming to an end! I wasn't alive for the PATCO strike, I'm only 32, but I'm a private pilot in Canada and find all your posts very well written and entertaining. Just wanted to give you credit where it's due, keep up the awesome writing!

No Longer a Factor said...

Thanks Paul! I'm glad you found the blog and are enjoying it. I too worry about the stories and the blog coming to an end - but only occasionally. These days, I just haven't had the time to write as often as I used to. Retirement keeps me busy because I now have the time to get involved in so many things.

I've come to realize though; there are ways to make the time I need. For example; I figured out how much time I waste by sleeping every night! If I can trim that down to just twice a week, I might get a lot more done. Yah think? :)) I actually did learn to get by with a lot less sleep in the year after the strike. So many overtime hours!

Thanks for writing and for your kind words. Check back now and then. I always have a few posts in progress but just need to finish them more often! Happy flying!


No Longer a Factor said...

To Dave Starr - Greetings from the land of wackos, crackpots and 'topical' storms! So you are among the happy expatriates living far from the shark ponds of Washington and the pundits who paddle their boats thereon; stirring up the waters as best they can. Color me green with envy. Although you are missing the best pre-election show ever! And the best part is that we show-goers don't have to pay a thing till the show is over! In fact; we won't even know the cost till then.

Reading your last comment gives me the idea your past is as checkered as mine. That's a good thing as it broadens one's perspective.

As to the strike; before August 3rd, I gave it about an 80% chance of happening. That was based on the large number of controllers I knew who said they'd go if PATCO gave the nod. So; I wasn't too surprised that morning. I was a bit sad, somewhat relieved, totally determined to keeping the planes moving and very apprehensive about the future. Since 1981, I've read so much about how Reagan was the one who struck such a huge blow against organized labor. I strongly disagree. With his greed, bad judgment, arrogance and little regard for the consequences of failure; I believe Bob Poli deserves that label.

Take care Dave,

Roger D. Parish said...

In 1981, I was working on my instrument rating. I had completed ground school and taken (and passed) the written exam, and was about to start the flying part of the training when PATCO struck and Ronnie fired the lot of them. Since you couldn't get an instrument clearance to save your soul, I decided to just put it off until things calmed down and returned to sort-of normal.

Fast-forward to 1986: our older daughter had graduated high school and was starting college, the local airport where we kept our C-172 was closing to become yet another shopping center, and I wasn't really flying enough to keep my insurer happy at renewal time.

Long story short, we sold the plane and I haven’t flown in a GA plane since.

No Longer a Factor said...

Hi Roger - thanks for writing. You are right about post-strike general aviation pilots trying to get an IFR clearance. The first year or so after August 3rd of '81 were pretty hectic. Tempers in both the control rooms and the cockpits were shorter than the time between "tick" and "tock." For me, getting more non-scheduled civil traffic into the air was a priority just below shooting myself. Your decision to postpone the Instrument Rating was a sound one. There were strict hourly quotas and, depending on where you were headed, approval had to be obtained from the receiving facility. If they were more short-handed than we were, you might have found yourself doing donuts in the sky at their airspace boundary until somebody took the handoff.

I got my Instrument ticket well before the strike. It wasn't easy and it wasn't cheap but it did give me a lot of insight into my ATC job. You can find the blog entry I made about it in a post titled "A New Approach." Hopefully, the link below will take you there.


Thanks again!


Anonymous said...

Good afternoon,

Enjoyed the catbird seat as I was attending the Data Systems Specialist course in Oklahoma City. Was selected for the position the previous December. Unlike some of the classmates was not called back the the facility mid-course. The large number
of controllers rapidly approaching retirement made the decision a nonstarter. I was one of the youngest to stay. Like you, my employment date was after the hiring freeze of 71-73 plus the Navy enlistment.

When the course was completed and I returned to the facility the picket line was active off site. The use of the automation training was put on hold for over two years.


No Longer a Factor said...

Always good to hear from yah, AC2usn. A DSS eh? Loved those guys, especially when I got to the "Plans & Procedures Officer" job. When we redesigned the sectors in our TRACON, the DSS staff had to reconfigure all the radar sectors. It was very complicated, as you know. They did great. That Data Systems course out in OKC was a long one but they must have taught you guys well.

There were several controllers at Big Time who were within months of retirement when the strike went down. Every one of them went out the door; in spite of several personal appeals from their contemporaries who had gone into management. Lost their retirement. What a tragedy.

By the way; you probably know by now that "hiring freeze" in the early 70s wasn't total. The FAA was, in fact, hiring but the emphasis was on minorities. Qualifications had little to no bearing on the program. Ironically; every one of those guys who ended up at Big Time went out on strike - throwing away the job that was handed to them. Another tragedy with PATCO's fingerprints all over it.

Take care Brother,