J. Lynn Helms, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration who carried out President Ronald Reagan’s order to fire more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers and oversaw efforts to keep airlines flying during the crisis, has died. He was 86.
He died Dec. 11 of cardiopulmonary failure at his home in Westport, Conn., a family spokesman said.
Helms had a reputation as a decisive, technically brilliant aviation industry executive who led a number of companies out of financial straits, including Piper Aircraft, which he ran for six years. A former test pilot, he was the first FAA chief in a decade capable of designing an airplane that could fly.
Several months into his tenure, in August 1981, more than 12,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, known as PATCO, walked off the job after contract negotiations stalled over the union’s call for a reduced workweek and higher pay.
After receiving assurances from Helms that a strike could be managed, Reagan declared the walkout illegal and warned that any workers who did not return to their jobs within 48 hours would be fired. The majority of controllers remained on strike and lost their jobs.
Helms’ contingency plan sharply reduced flight schedules and used supervisors, nonstriking air controllers and some military controllers to direct the nation’s air traffic.
According to Georgetown University labor historian Joseph McCartin, who wrote a book about the strike, Helms was well suited to the challenge of standing up to the air controllers.
“Helms developed a strong dislike for unions as chief executive at Piper,” McCartin told the Los Angeles Times last week. “He did not believe that collective bargaining had a place in a government agency such as the FAA. And he was instrumental in convincing President Reagan and other members of the administration that they could break a strike by highly skilled air traffic controllers, even if it took firing and permanently replacing large numbers of them.”
PATCO was decertified by the government two months after the strike began. The Reagan administration allowed only a fraction of the striking air controllers to be rehired.
Helms later pushed through Congress the $10-billion, 10-year National Airspace System Plan for modernizing the air traffic control computer network. It was described at the time as the largest civil aviation project ever undertaken by the federal government.
Born on March 1, 1925, in DeQueen, Ark., Helms grew up in Norman, Okla., and earned a degree in aeronautical engineering at the University of Oklahoma. After ROTC training, he joined the Marine Corps as a second lieutenant. He later became a Navy test pilot and was decorated for his service during the Korean War.
He once told an interviewer how a jet he was testing for McDonnell Douglas went out of control at 52,000 feet. He did not panic and by 12,000 feet had figured out what to do.
“You can think your way out of most problems,” he said.
In 1956, he embarked on a career in the defense industry as a design engineer. He climbed the ranks at North American Aviation and Bendix before becoming president of the Norden Division of the United Air Craft Corp. in 1970. In 1974, he was named president of Piper Aircraft, rising to chairman in 1978.
A multimillionaire, Helms became the subject of federal investigations into his private business dealings in 1983. That year, The Wall Street Journal reported that two federal grand juries were examining questionable transfers of assets, frequent bankruptcies and defaults on money loaned or guaranteed by government agencies.
Helms resigned his FAA post a few days before Christmas in 1983.
The following year, the government charged that Helms and two associates had violated anti-fraud provisions of the federal securities laws. Helms’ case was settled after he signed an order agreeing not to engage in the activities outlined in the charges. He was not required to return any of the several million dollars that investigators said he had diverted to companies he owned or for personal use.
In accepting Helms’ resignation from the FAA, Reagan cited his handling of the strike as “your best accomplishment.”
Helms is survived by his wife, Lorraine Bisgard Helms; two daughters; a son; three grandchildren; and a brother.