A picture caption in yesterday's editions of The Washington Post erroneously identified two men operating Kennedy Airport's control tower as Air Force airmen. One is a tower supervisor and the other a Federal Aviation Administration official.

"What are your plans for handling the PATCO strike?" Sen. J. James Exon (D-Neb.) asked Drew Lewis at his confirmation hearings in January.

"My hope is that with reasonableness we can reach a satisfactory arrangement," said Lewis, President Reagan's choice for secretary of transportation. "We support the federal law with regard to illegal strikes. Usually there is some middle ground that can be reached. I think we approach it not as a strike, but as a negotiation."

Sometime early last week, perhaps before that, President Reagan and Lewis abandoned negotiation and declared that Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization members who had walked out were striking illegally and were therefore fired.

The adoption of that hard-line stance, from which the administration has not retreated, was a decision carefully reached, one that was expected to play politically and one that agreed with Lewis' sense both of what was right and what could be done.

That combination -- careful study, political opportunity and conviction tempered with pragmatism -- is what has made Lewis' first seven months as secretary of transportation the most productive in both problem-solving and basic policy change the department has seen since it was created in 1966.

Lewis, for example:

Was the clear winner over Treasury, the Office of Management and Budget and the ycouncil of Economic Advisers on whether the United States should impose import quotas on Japanese automobiles to help the ailing domestic industry.

Lewis felt Detroit had to have relief from imports if it was going to recover so, despite his professed belief in free trade, he pushed for quotas; the others opposed them. The final agreement included voluntary quotas.

Lewis followed that by stripping away some of his department's safety regulations opposed by the industry.

Defanged a potentially disruptive Air Line Pilots Association strike in April when he persuaded the union's executive board that he would grant a new hearing on whether two crew members instead of three are needed to safely fly the new generation of jet planes.

In exchange for a prsidential task force review of the question, Lewis received assurances that the pilots would not strike and would accept as final the recommendation of the task force. The task force found a crew of two to be safe; ALPA went along, and is now clearly a silent partner in the administration's battle with PATCO.

Promised to get the government out of the railroad business, specifically out of Conrail, and succeeded in pushing through Congress legislation that will let him start that process.

Engineered transfer of the Maritime Administration from the Commerce Department to Transportation and thus gave DOT the missing link it has needed in forming national transportation policy. Matters such as how to transfer coal from railroads to ships and how to restore competitiveness to the shipping industry are now part of Lewis' agenda.

Proposed the most restrictions for National Airport, but appears to have the best chance of any secretary seeing a policy adopted. Lewis' proposal would halt continuing passenger growth at National and encourage both passengers and airlines to switch to Dulles International, the area's other federally owned airport.

Lewis is also working to reduce federal involvement in highway construction and mass transit programs, which will be debated extensively on Capital Hill next year.

Most of those things have been done quietly and efficiently, with a minimum of bruised feelings.

It may have been Lewis' skills as a negotiator and a compromiser that led PATCO's members and leadership to underestimate his toughness, in the view of several observers. PATCO President Robert E. Poli said as much yesterday when he noted that PATCO members thought there was more for them than Lewis had put on the bargaining table.

The one thing everyone who has dealt with Lewis observes is that he means what he says, and he said several times that $40 million was the most money the government was going to put into a new controllers' contract.

In a lengthy interview three days before the strike began, Lewis discussed the PATCO situation. He already had negotiated the $40 million proposal, and had seen Poli accept it, but then, apparently under enormous pressure from his union, urge its rejection.

"I guess I don't have a great deal of patience for the other side," Lewis said. "I do feel thta I have a responsibility to try to keep those airplanes in the air and try to not have a strike. On the other hand, I have an obligation to the public in terms of not having an exhorbitant wage settlement here thta upsets every other wage settlement in government.

"But the bottom line is, assuming the White House concurs with me, I think they've had a very generous settlement now. I don't think they're going to get any more out of Congress than they presently have."

Rick Robb, who was Lewis' partner in business and is a close friend, called Lewis "100 percent comfortable" with the PATCO situation.

Lewis, Robb said, "is a very pleasant, pragmatic, cheerful individual. But I can assure you that when the time comes to fight, he is the most intense, tough fighter I have ever encountered. He feels [that PATCO's members] have broken the law."

Lewis attributes his early success at DOT to getting his senior staff confirmed quickly and developing a budget that would survive at OMB. A long-time careerist in DOT said Lewis has "an uncanny understanding of the White House, OMB, and how that game is played."

Lewis regularly talks to OMB Director David A. Stockman and, though OMB and DOT have been on separate sides in auto industry and National Airport issues, relations are cordial.

Lewis inaugurated regular meetings with key members of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee. "I don't think any secretary tops Lewis as an administrator and as a negotiator," said Committee Chairman James J. Howard (D-N.J.)

Lewis has impressed business. Philip Caldwell, chief executive officer of Ford Motor Co., said, "It seems to me that he has demonstrated that he is the secretary of transportation, not just the secretary of the auto industry. Intellectually and mentally, he's a tough fellow."

The airlines, despite heavy losses and potential continuing reductions in air traffic for one to two years, "really support him" on his PATCO stance, an official with the Air Transport Association of America said.

Ralph Nader, who is distressed about removal of some auto safety regulations, called Lewis "probably the coldest-blooded Cabinet officer I have ever seen," to which Lewis responded, "I don't know how he learned whether I'm cold-hearted or not because he spent about an hour with me and I never said a word because he talked all the time."

Lewis comes from Philadelphia to Washington with a history of business success and Republican activism. His financial and management consulting business has specialized in salvaging or reorganizing failing firms, and in that role he has fired people and closed offices.

He learned the railroad business while serving as trustee of the bankrupt Reading.

He ran for governor of Pennsylvania in 1974, losing to Democrat Milton J. Shapp by 300,000 votes. That loss, which is usually blamed on Watergate, was "sort f a psychological low in my life," Lewis said. He will not seek elective office again, he said.

Lewis played a key role in holding the Pennsylvania delegation for Gerald Ford in 1976, and thus guaranteed Ford the GOP presidential nomination.

Lewis was firmly in Ronald Reagan's camp last year, and sought the job he now holds because "this department looked to me like it had exciting problems. To me, Conrail is exciting, mass transit is exciting, the FAA's problems are exciting." Foreigh policy, he siad, "is not my bag."

Lewis said he enjoys administrative responsibility and that "I'd much rather run my own gas station than be on a committee to run the world."

He describes himself as "basically free enterprise, free trade and conservative. But I'm also not so tied to ideology that I am not satisfied to be somewhat pragmatic in figuring out how you solve a problem.

"I think it's great to be theoretically pure, but at some point you can be theoretically pure to the point where you go backwards instead of forwards."