8-3-1981: the day the FAA disappeared

A really long storm

The recent discussion about the ill-advised privatization of the air traffic control system sent my thoughts twirling back to a day and time when the system actually came to a screeching halt and we had no system, public or private.

Have you ever been to Westchester County Airport, HPN, north of New York City? It is usually a beehive of activity, mostly business jets but also some lowly pistons, like me. I took off at Mercer County Airport in New Jersey before 7, the morning of 08/03/1981, VFR, headed to HPN to pick up a passenger and proceed on to Oshkosh for the big show.

When I called the tower at HPN, there was nothing but silence. So, I landed. No, I wasn’t being a scofflaw. There was no tower, or at least no people in the tower. The air traffic controller strike of 1981 had begun while I was flying from TTN to HPN.

PATCO strike
Nobody was in the tower because they were on the picket line.

Using the ground and then tower frequencies I announced my intentions as I taxied out and departed. The weather was good VFR for the first part of the trip to OSH but there was a front along the way. As one who used the IFR system for every cross-country flight, it is an understatement to say I felt somewhat lost.

I had called Millville Flight Service before leaving home that morning and had filed an IFR flight plan from HPN to a fuel stop somewhere along the way to OSH. Once off and at cruise out of HPN, I thought I’d see if there was anybody home at New York Center. I looked up and set the applicable frequency and transmitted, New York Center, this is Cessna Forty RC. Much to my surprise, there was an answer. He sounded like a somewhat older guy, maybe a little confused or nonplussed or whatever, but when I told him I had an IFR on file and asked if I could get a clearance he said he did indeed have my flight plan. A minute later he cleared me to an airport on the western edge of New York Center’s airspace.

He explained that there would be little chance of a hand-off to Cleveland Center and a continuation of my IFR in their airspace. As I got closer to the airport that was my clearance limit, he said he tried a handoff but there was nobody home. He asked if I was in VFR conditions and could land VFR. When I said yes to both he terminated my IFR and wished me good luck.

I continued to the west, but the weather was getting all front-like as I was nearing Loraine/Elyria (22G them, LPR now) in Ohio so I decided to land there and regroup. The TV in the pilot’s lounge was on, the illegal ATC strike was the news, and President Reagan made his famous go back to work or you are fired speech. Many thought that the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association, Patco, had badly misjudged the resolve of the President and subsequent events proved this to be true.

Flight Service was not on strike and the specialist I spoke with told me there was absolutely no chance of an IFR clearance and that the weather to the west of LPR would be marginal VFR at best for a couple of hundred miles but then it would turn back good and remain that way.

The air traffic control system that I knew and loved had simply vanished leaving me with but one choice, the method I had used before making the acquaintance of IFR back in the 1950s. A Cessna P210 was not my idea of a good airplane for scud running but when a P210 and scud running are the only options, well, it was time to fish or cut bait, as they used to say.

To me one of the cornerstones of scud running was following either a highway or a railroad track and this day I latched onto a pretty good westbound highway out of LPR.

Conditions were marginal but I was doing okay. The briefer had, however, mentioned some rain along the way and I knew if I combined the marginal conditions that I was flying in with rain, it would not work. Lower scud would form in the rain and the 500 foot floor I wanted just wouldn’t be available. This was before Loran or GPS but I did have Sectionals, just like I used to use when running the scud in Cubs.

Scud over airport
When you can’t go IFR and the weather looks like this, what do you do?

Here I had a larcenous thought. When I started flying instruments, we did a lot of legal cloud flying without a clearance in uncontrolled airspace, which was plentiful at the time. I wondered if controlled airspace existed if there was no control available. How about pulling up to a safe altitude and cloud flying until clear of the front? We used to call that bootleg IFR and we never thought there was much risk of collision because not many people did it. Then my thoughts turned back to the fine art of scud running.

After flying about 40 or 50 miles, the airborne weather radar started painting some rain ahead. That called for a change in plan. I was most definitely running out of VFR when I landed at I46, Fremont, Ohio.

So what was the new plan? A call to Flight Service revealed that the showers were scattered to broken and were moving to the northeast, as showers do in a situation like that. I thought we’d cool it at Fremont for a while and if the weather appeared good enough to take off, I’d do just that and see what it looked like.

I could always land again and with this in mind gave thanks to my old friend Norm Crabtree, who oversaw the construction of a lot of Ohio airports while he was the Director of Aviation for that state. Thanks to him, there would always be an airport up ahead as well as one to the right and one to the left.

Off flying again with the weather still scuzzy, I was getting a little more comfortable with what I was doing. After about an hour, conditions brightened and became ever better as I flew westbound and I landed in Green Bay, GRB, my airport of choice for Oshkosh, 2:20 out of I46. The trip was a bit slow because I had limited speed to 120 knots indicated while dealing with the marginal weather.

The Oshkosh show went off without a hitch, control tower and all. The big controller staffing needed for the show had always been handled by volunteers and they apparently showed up as promised.

I had originally intended to fly home on the 6th but a front was slated to move in the night before. From experience, I knew something about OSH weather. When it’s hot, it’s really hot. Likewise on cold. And when the weather is bad, it is really bad. It was CAVU for a flight home on the 5th so that is what I did. That was the day that President Reagan fired the 11,345 air traffic controllers who failed to report back to work. He also said they would never ever be eligible for rehiring.

Reagan
“They are in violation of the law.”

The strike followed a long period of labor strife and the FAA had contingency plans to operate the system using non-striking controllers, supervisory personnel and military controllers, among other things. This was just cranking up on August 5th. A really ugly dialog between Patco and the FAA/DOT was also cranking up.

The airlines had no choice but to fly IFR. That is required by law. So as I droned eastward on the 5th, VFR at 17,500 feet, 500 feet below the base of positive control airspace, I monitored center frequencies to see what, if anything was going on. I heard a few airline flights but not many. The system was beginning to function but on that third day of the strike it had little capacity. The airlines and the FAA were moving cautiously. A collision would have been a catastrophe beyond measure and would have proven Patco to be correct when they said that any abbreviated system would be dangerous.

Back in the FLYING office in New York, we were carefully monitoring the situation. Patco and the FAA were dueling in the media with accusations flying like airplanes used to fly. I had a lot of friends who were controllers and I knew the FAA had been a bad boss getting worse for a long time. I was disappointed, though, at the image projected by the striking controllers. They appeared as an angry and scruffy lot who were insistent on my way or the highway. There was obviously no chance of a negotiated settlement. The point of no return had been passed.

The airlines were slowly adding flights and from what we could learn, private operations were functioning to some extent. There were widespread rumors about bootleg IFR flying, especially in business and charter jets which needed to operate above Flight Level 180. This was before electronic traffic and collision avoidance (TCAS) gear was developed so collision avoidance was based on three things. One, few airplanes were flying so the risk was relatively low. That is the big sky theory. Two, the weather above 180 is usually good so the frequently maligned see and avoid technique had at least slight viability. Three, luck.

I imagined that at least some of the rumors were true, but I never saw any documentation and there were no reported incidents.

Most of us who used private airplanes for purposeful business or personal transportation were determined to press on with whatever we had planned. If we didn’t put pressure on the system, it would never redevelop the means to respond.

I had a trip to Florida planned, to start on August 10. I got up that morning, filed two IFR flight plans by phone (the only way at that time), drove to the airport, cranked up, and called Trenton ground, Cessna forty RC taxiing, IFR to Myrtle Beach. I was promptly cleared as filed and assigned an altitude.

That leg went off without a hitch as did subsequent legs to Fort Lauderdale, Lakeland, and then home with another fuel stop at Myrtle Beach. All legs were flown IFR with no delay. Frequencies were pretty quiet, though.

I kept running the traps as planned and while there were occasional glitches I was always able to get where I was going, on the day if not the precise time I wanted to get there. It even seemed to be getting better.

I don’t think that either the airlines or the FAA thought we should be allowed to operate with such freedom and the bomb was dropped in October. A general aviation reservation (GAR) program was implemented whereby reservations would be allocated to flight service station for distribution on a first-come, first-served basis.

Time cover
That pretty well summed things up.

The number allocated was small, really small. It seemed more a general aviation annihilation plan than a reservation system. Obviously, a bureaucrat savoring his absolute control over an activity reflects far more pleasure than a miser counting his money. As constituted, the reservations system would literally strangle IFR flying in private aviation.

I had my first encounter with the system in Wichita, Kansas, wanting to head home to New Jersey. A bunch of us were there for at function at Beech, a bunch of us wanted to leave, the weather was bad, and all the IFR reservations had long been taken.

I had as passengers that day Ed Stimpson, then head of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, and his great wife, Dottie. I had offered to drop them off at Dulles on my way back to New Jersey. I had explained in advance what a crap shoot the trip would be. Little did I know.

It started with an aborted scud run attempt out of Beech Field in Wichita. That wasn’t working and we returned to Beech.

It looked a bit better after a couple of hours of pacing, checking the weather, and trying to get an IFR reservation. The second scud run of the day worked okay until we were in the vicinity of Emporia, Kansas. There, reality set in. I needed relief and called the Emporia FSS and explained my plight. I never knew exactly what he did, and don’t recall exactly what was said, but I felt free to fly a VOR approach to EMP. The reported weather was 400 overcast with a mile and a half visibility in rain. Quite obviously, that wasn’t good enough for scud running.

It was with genuine gratitude that I thanked the specialist in the FSS for his help. He offered even more help after he learned what we were trying to do. He said he thought he could get us an IFR clearance to an airport within the confines of Kansas City Center airspace and we then went to the teletype printouts on clipboards to see if we could find such a destination that was on the east side of the inclement weather.

That worked, we got the clearance and flew in rain and clouds for an hour, and when clear of the bad stuff cancelled IFR and continued VFR to Lexington, Kentucky, for fuel and a bite to eat. Darkness set in about 30 minutes before landing in LEX. The original plan for the day had been to be home before dark.

It was a beautiful night and we had a smooth trip on to Dulles where I left Ed and Dottie before I flew on to Trenton.

Thinking back, I reflected on how, when the bureaucrats screw up a system that is working well, our job becomes one of beating their screwed up system without adding risk to trips. That was my last shot at scud running. I realized that the FAA folks in the trenches, trying to help, would go to great lengths to help us get where we wanted to go safely. For example, by decree pop-up IFR clearances were prohibited. I got more than a half a dozen of those from controllers who were just trying to be helpful despite the decree.

My trips back home to New Jersey usually terminated late in the day. One day, when in an area of bad weather with no reservation available, I tried something different. If you had an arrival reservation at one of the capacity controlled airports, like Washington National, you did not have to have an IFR reservation. Arrival reservations at DCA were usually available late in the day so when no IFR reservation was available I got a DCA arrival reservation and filed to there. I flew my IFR flight until getting close to DCA, and then, in good VFR conditions, cancelled the IFR and flew VFR to Trenton.

I never tried doing that unless I could switch to VFR. Who knows what they would have done if I had asked to change my IFR destination from DCA to TTN?

It was a trying time for private aviation travel but we managed while the FAA trained new controllers and basically rebuilt the system. In a few years we were back to having the best air traffic control system in the world, which remains true to this day.

The strike, and President Reagan’s breaking the strike, was one of the most significant events in the history of labor relations and if you Google Air Traffic Controller Strike, you’ll find a lot of interesting material. I always thought it was interesting that, when working in Hollywood, Reagan actually led the Screen Actors Guild through a successful strike and was, no joke, endorsed by Patco when he ran for president. I guess they thought he was a good union man. Wrong. Not any more he wasn’t.

21 Comments

  • Richard; Boy, does this ever bring back memories… There was one positive aspect among all of the negative Controllers’ Strike consequences which I benefited from – the “twenty-four-hour rule.” I was flying passenger charters around the southern U.S. during the strike, and it was not uncommon for me to end up waiting in my Cessna 414 anywhere from two to twenty hours after the scheduled departure time for my ‘people’ to show up at the airport – either home field for outbound leg or destination for the return leg. My time was worth nothing (I wasn’t paid for sitting and waiting), so many of my customers felt like they could wantonly perceive me as being nothing more than another piece of the airplane’s equipment. Many a night I’ve spent sleeping under an awning on a hard wooden bench outside a closed-for-the-night FBO on some deserted, small-town municipal airport with nothing to do but listen to the crickets and watch the beacon go ’round and ’round while waiting for my passengers to arrive. That all changed during the strike. Because of the ‘twenty-four-hour’ rule, everyone, especially the customers, knew that all IFR clearances must be requested twenty-four hours in advance. And (here was the best part), if you missed your departure time by more than one hour you had to start all over again with another twenty-four hour wait. I’ve never prayed so hard for bad flying weather as I did in those days. And my people showed up promptly from then on until the crisis abated.

    • Good or bad, which ever way you look at it, when RR fired all the controllers he signaled to Wall Street and Big Business that organized labor was going to be fair game during his administration and beyond. In some areas, labor still hasn’t recovered from the knock down blow which helped virtually wipe out middle class America.

      • Really Ben?

        Then it had nothing to do with efficiencies of the labor force; the change from a manufacturing economy to a service economy; the short sighted changes in tax codes which were supposed to tax the wealthy, but ended up closing down industries like aircraft and large boats (which the wealthy like, but won’t stupidly buy, and are largely made by labor); or the changes due to overzealous lawsuits which likewise destroyed markets for products. NO… it was all about labor’s knock down and that wiped out the middle class…

        Probably not.

  • Wow, fantastic article Mr. Collins, and thanks for the perspective. Many of us were kids (or non-existent) when this all happened and do not know the back story. We should not allow history to repeat itself through ignorance of what can happen to our well functioning ATC system.

  • 1 Ben I don’t know about knockout blow to middle America, perhaps you’re right though I don’t think so … but please don’t forget: the strike was illegal. Against the law.

    2 thanks so much for these memories Richard. We DO still have the best ATC system there is. I think Pres. Trump genuinely doesn’t know this, and does not know of GA’s character or importance. We must find a way to tell him … good story, thanks again.

    • Jim D: Thanks for pointing out the fact that the strike was ILLEGAL. And I disagree with Ben Morphew’s comment about he middle class on how Pres Reagan’s actions harmed them. If anything, the middle class expanded in wealth since that time well into the 90s. The middle class is suffering now not due to a lack of labor laws protecting them on some industrial age factory floor (the majority of the economy is service based now), but due to an work force unable to cope with the rapid changes in demanded goods and services and the technical skills required to produce them (hence the hiring of foreign workers to do technical jobs that many Americans do not have the skill (untrained) to accomplish.

      • Dave,
        Not disagreeing with you but I just want to point out that I am a technical worker who is properly trained to do a technical job (network administrator). I was laid off and replaced by a foreign worker in India. I was here, I was doing the job, the guy in India worked for far less than I, and I was out on the street. So, it’s not like there aren’t properly trained people here that can do the jobs.

        And to keep this post aviation related… I’ve been a private pilot for 25 years and love flying!

        • Scott, you have a valid point, and a very personal one. Some jobs could be filled by skilled US workers, and the question is how do the foreign worker visas fit into this without making the US an unwelcoming nation. I guess that is a question for the voters and elected reps concerning immigration policy.

  • Will never forget that day!Was in TEB flying a Navajo,wanted to get home after several days in NYC.Gave up trying to get FSS,no one in tower,I reasoned no one home no one reports us I was first one to taxi out,checked wx with on board radar,didnt like what I saw back to ramp for three more hours then finally scud run the NJ Turnpike at 1800 msl ,made it all way to LRP before being forced to land ,made call on toer freq and lo and behold atc answered me gave me current wx I came overhead n let down over vor,tower says where you come from n where you trying get to ?Told them HTS they said give them a hour and call they had me an IFR clearance home wow!We took off n all was well till bout ESL then another twin was coming at us at 10000 head on with no traffic called !After that it was rather quite all way back.We parked the Navajo and flew legal scud running all summer in our Bell Jetranger until the tower enroute system was developed in the fall.

    • Thanks, Rod, for answering the question that was nagging me all the time I was reading about Richards problems getting a clearance. Why didn’t he get a tower enroute clearance? It was so long ago that it seemed that the tower enroute clearance started almost the same day the strike did. It took a couple of months to implement it. I was doing mostly single-engine on-demand charter at the time so it didn’t effect me that much.

      As for privatizing, I’m actually thinking it might be a good thing. We’ve all complained about how slow the FAA is to regulating new technology or implementing efficient airspace changes. The private sector has alway proven to be more innovative than government bureaucracies. It may be time for a change.

      • The issue that I have read, from the various alphabet groups like AOPA, etc, is that the privatization will be a not-for profit organization with a board of directors. So far they have said that board of directors will consist of airline reps, pilot union reps but no mention at all of a representative for the general aviation community. The goal seems to be the long running argument of the airlines versus GA and along with privatization will come a new set of user fees which will absolutely kill general aviation. Imagine every time you file a flight plan, fly into controlled airspace, get an official weather briefing, you get a bill in the mail charging you for those services. That is what could happen with privatization and user fees. I surely hope it does not come to that. As AOPA and other organizations have said before, the GA community already pays its fair share with the taxes on our AVGAS.

  • Personally, I’m horizontally opposed to the privatization of our air control system. I cannot fathom the benefit of exchanging a service system for a system clearly based upon profit.

  • I was flying on demand charter on the first day of the strike, based at Aurora, west of Chicago. Several of us spent the first four hours of that day sitting in the office waiting for the weather that Mr. Collins eventually encountered to clear out. At noon, it improved to just barely marginal VFR, and the boss said “everybody go.” I was flying a Seneca on an eastbound cargo run, so you can imagine shortly after takeoff I was flying into the weather that had recently departed the area. I was following railroad tracks toward Fort Wayne at about 800 feet AGL in rain. Those low scud clouds Mr. Collins was expecting were now below me, and I was beginning to encounter opposite direction traffic at similar altitudes, following the same tracks, probably trying to get to OSH (Richard, did I pass you in that bunch?). I decided enough was enough and set down at Valparaiso, IN. Told by my boss to attempt obtaining IFR clearances, I was sporadically successful. I finally completed my trip to FWA, YNG, MLI, and back to ARR, but it took 30 hours for 8 hours flying time.
    Ironically, nine months later I was hired as an Air Traffic Controller, and enjoyed a wonderful career at Chicago Center for many years.

  • If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it…..the British learned that from a Statistics professor during WWII with their airplane maintenance.
    Messing with a well functioning device you run the risk of braking it and creating a pile of junk in the process.
    There is something fishy about wanting to change the landscape with unforeseen consequences.
    Thank you for the nice history lesson, Mr. Collins !!!!!

  • I was at EAA Oshkosh (not yet called AirVenture) on Monday, August 3, 1981. At some point the PA system announced that the air traffic strike was on. There was a brief silence while all digested this information, followed by loud and happy cheering. I understood the general sentiment to be “good riddance.” When ATC returned there was a noticeable increase in the civility and helpfulness which controllers gave to “little guys,” which continues to this day. GA pilots now really do think of ATC as “here to help you.”

  • I’ll never forget flying to Oshkosh during the strike. At The Theater in the Woods the working air traffic controllers were introduced. They received a standing ovation.

  • Memories! I was an Air Force controller at Eglin AFB and went TDY (temporary duty) to Quonset airport in RI for 6 months. My group operated that tower for 2 1/2 – 3 years if I recall correctly. Many fellow Air Force controllers were sent all over the US . Had a bunch of friends from Columbus AFB (my previous base) that went and worked ATC at Boston Logan, a few went to Miami, and many other locations. While the Air Force had the most controllers deployed, there were also Army, Navy, and Marine controllers deployed to get the ATC system back up and running. Took awhile to get back to normal ATC.

  • Memories! I was an Air Force controller at Eglin AFB and went TDY (temporary duty) to Quonset airport in RI for 6 months. My group operated that tower for 2 1/2 – 3 years if I recall correctly. Many fellow Air Force controllers were sent all over the US . Had a bunch of friends from Columbus AFB (my previous base) that went and worked ATC at Boston Logan, a few went to Miami, and many other locations. While the Air Force had the most controllers deployed, there were also Army, Navy, and Marine controllers deployed to get the ATC system back up and running. Took awhile to get back to normal ATC.

  • I had a good controller friend, Ole Ellingson, who agonized as to whether he should join his buddies or not in the PATCO strike. As a recently minted controller, he succumbed to to the pressure and joined the strike faction.

    At that time I was using my 1977 Hawk XP II to sell farm machinery in the area encompassed by Minneapolis Center and would often visit with Ole late at night on my RTB in Fargo. Ole was training on the night shift and due to the lateness and minimal traffic, he worked many MSP sectors at the same time – lots of geography but little traffic and time for good chatter.

    Ole was gone forever from MSP Center, a job he loved, and I was forever saddened whenever flying late at night in MSP Center recollecting his reassuring, friendly voice. Ole did OK after being fired by RR but the midnight enthusiasm in his communication forever left his demeanor and he plodded through life as an ordinary mortal rather than as a respected member of a unique group of humans with special skills.

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