Around consoles and green-glowing radar scopes at the Leesburg air control center, nonstriking controllers and their supervisors voice a curious mix of scorn and respect for 173 men and women who three weeks ago walked out at the facility and now are being fired.
At slack moments in the darkened, carpeted control room, black humor is traded, likening president Robert Poli and other striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization to the Rev. Jim Jones and his suicidal flock in Guyana. Supervisors watching over men seated before rows of screens gripe that union accusations of slipshod attention to safety are groundless.
Yet there also are expressions of admiration for absent co-workers and friends. The strikers stuck to their ideals and risked jobs that paid an average of more than $30,000 a year, it is said. They lost and now, with notices of dismissal arriving in the mail, they are paying the price.
PATCO alleges that fatigue, tension and incompetence have become endemic inside the Leesburg center, which guides airplanes through the skies over 140,000 square miles around Washington, as well as at other control centers since the strike began. But this reporter, in a visit and conversations arranged by facility officials, found no overt signs of such problems.
As before, controllers in open-necked shirts lean back and gab during slow periods. They roll chairs over and bunch up at radar screens where traffic is getting thick. At break time they move below to the cafeteria for television, coffee and gossip.
In interviews, controllers and supervisors agreed with Federal Aviation Administration statements that, with traffic reduced and spread out over the day, the system functions sfely and smoothly with only minor glitches.
"We're in good shape," says deputy chief Ed Bland.
In fact, for reasons that remain unclear, relatively few of the Leesburg center's controllers remain off the job -- about 40 percent, compared to the nationwide figure of about 75 percent. At Leesburg, officials say, there are no supervisors working the screens, there are no military personnel, and overtime is minimal.
Still, it is hardly business as usual.The glass doors in front are sealed as a security measure.Staff members must sign in at a guarded checkpoint downstairs. Upstairs in the control room, jobs have been expanded, altered and in some cases eliminated, air sectors combined, and planes rerouted to make up for the loss of more than 170 people.
And every day at shift-chaning time, union pickets appear on an oval track they have worn in the grass by the gate. They are, at the least, acquaintances and often close friends of those who pass through to jobs inside. Sometimes they wave. Sometimes they gesture and shout taunts.
Facility chief Angelo Viselli, frequently the target of picket-line baiting, has taken to raising the windows of his Pontiac Firebird before he drives through. He calls the strike "probably the saddest time I've ever had" in 27 years with the FAA.
"Every time I go by there, I just wonder why this all happened and why they still feel that this drastic action is necessary," muses Viselli, seated in his pleasant ground-floor office amid potted plants and airplane models.
A former controller, he has run the Leesburg center for six years. He knows the faces on the control room floor, although like many supervisors, he keeps scially distant after hours. He counts no close friends among the strikers, he says.
As it happens, friendship would have interfered with the things Viseli has had to do in recent weeks. He has testified in court and provided photographs to establish the existence of an illegal strike, which could lead to his former controllers being jailed, although none have been to date. He has signed the preliminary dismissal notices and, after examining responses, is the man who decides to fire or retain.
PATCO is contesting almost every case. This week, some 25 controllers came in to challenge their dismissals in person. Viselli doesn't see them himself. He talked to three or four strikers informally in the first days of the job action, he says. He now prefers not to take such calls.
On the floor upstairs, supervisors maintain much closer contact with the controllers. Team supervisors such as Ed Collins, a stocky man with flecks of gray in his beard, move constantly, peering at screens over shoulders, calling maintenance when radio problems occur, shifting extra people to sectors where thunderstorms are reported.
Collins, probably seen as anti-union by his own account, lost eight of 10 controllers on his team to the strike. A few teams, in contrast, remained almost intact, leading to suggestions on the floor that personal friendships and loyalties to fellow teamworkers had as much to do with who walked out as did the issues of PATCOs contract.
Unlike Viselli, Collins knows many of the strikers well. One striking team member was a friend of seven years, he says, a partner in an after-hours, lawnmower repair business who often would go along for the ride when he drove off to pick up parts for the business.
From 10 p.m. until 2 a.m. one night, shortly after the strike began, Collins argued the strike issues with his friend "in my driveway over the hood of my pickup truck." The man did not budge. But they remain close, Collin says. The friend continues to call at his home in Sterling, but lately has come less frequently as the search for a new job eats up his time.
"I rspect them for their beliefs," Collins says of the strikers."But it's very difficult for me to accept what they've done."
In 1970 he was a PATCO member and stayed off the job for nine days in a sickout. But he feels that many strikers today are motivated more by greed and money than by concern for safety. Controllers do not work that hard, he suggests.
"One of the biggest things that caused this strike is boredom," he says. "They sit around and start to actually believe that the situation is as bad as they want it to be."
He is approaching 25 years in the air traffic business and says that he, like many others, thrives on the excitement of the job. He suggests that many strikers will find they miss the work even more than the money, explaining: "When you key [activate] that mike out there, you have to think that you're the best in the world."
Some of the 258 controllers who are working despite PATCO's strike call (32 of them initially struck but then returned under President Reagan's deadline) report a new sense of camaraderie on the floor as people work to keep the system on the air.
Notable too, they say, are the unusual courtesy and cooperativeness from pilots who, holding ultimate responsibility for their planes' safety, in the past would routinely reject directions from the ground and haggle over delay-causing diversions.
Now, says one controller, "you could tell them to turn the plane upside down and they'd do it."
Over the air, pilots deliver messges like "thanks for being there" or "thanks for coming to work," notes one controller. He says he finds it all vaguely condescending, since he is simply doing the same job that had gone unrecognized for so long.