They said it couldn't be done, that the president would never fire them all, that Reagan had promised to improve their lot. They said there was strength in numbers, that they were simply too many, too valuable, too good at their jobs.

But Reagan did fire the air traffic controllers, 11,400 of them, and now, a year after they walked off their jobs, many former controllers are fumbling for new careers--and new incomes--to brake their financial freefall.

For the controllers, whose average salary was $33,000 a year, it has been a year of struggling new businesses, drained savings and retirement accounts, scaled-back life styles, broken families--and strengthened ones too.

Some controllers say things are looking up, some are scrambling to make ends meet, and some, having wondered for the better part of a year if it was all worth it, are selling their homes and possessions and moving.

Almost all the controllers say they miss "life on the scope" terribly. Almost all say they would strike again.

"It took me eight or nine months to get it out of my system," said James J. Stakem, 34, the former vice president and strike coordinator for Local 204 of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization. "The work was exciting and I miss that. It's like being a fighter pilot and being given a desk job and told, 'You fly with a pen now.' "

Stakem, the unflappable father figure who led more than 150 controllers in the Washington Air Route Traffic Center in Leesburg off the job last Aug. 3, has stopped what he and his wife joshingly call "sleep training"--talking aloud to airplanes in his dreams. And he wears his "Ultra-Cool Death-Defyin' PATCO Air Traffic Controllers" T-shirt proudly.

But that doesn't mean everything is all right. Stakem made a $42,000 salary as a controller. This year he took in $8,000--and says he spent nearly five times that, including his retirement money, to keep a foundering Amoco station in Leesburg in business.

The gas station, just around the corner from the old Local 204 headquarters in downtown Leesburg (where a sign hanging in the doorway a year ago today pronounced "And the skies shall be silent") has been a social focal point for an old-boy network--of members of a now-defunct local of a now-defunct union.

Since Stakem started operating Olde Towne Amoco last fall, eight former controllers have worked there, pumping gas for $3.50 an hour--and no benefits. Today, another former controller is selling fresh produce--which is grown by yet another former controller--from a stand at the gas station.

The public's view apparently is that the controllers got what they deserved after last summer's strike, which crippled air traffic across the nation and inconvenienced thousands of passengers. Surveys during the last year have shown that most Americans agree with President Reagan's decision to fire the controllers, who signed a pledge when they started working for the Federal Aviation Administration that they would not strike against the government. [The FAA has vastly expanded its school in Oklahoma City to train new controllers. Story on Page A15.]

The controllers know that the public is not sympathetic to their cause. They blame the media for failing to inform the public on the strike's true causes and the controllers' most heartfelt grievances. Many also acknowledge that one of their principal public relations obstacles was their high income level: PATCO, sadly for its image-makers, was an upper-middle-class union.

"People didn't understand and they still don't understand that money wasn't the main issue--it was an early retirement, number one, and a shorter work week, number two," said one controller who asked that his name not be used because, like nearly all the fired controllers, he is appealing his firing to the Merit Systems Protection Board.

Another controller, the former president of Local 204, declined to be interviewed for attribution for fear that if people discovered he is a former controller, his business would suffer.

"I don't want the American people to think that I'm a criminal," said David G. Roseberry, 31, who worked as a controller for 10 years and is now studying accounting and data processing at Northern Virginia Community College. "That hurts me more than everything else. There are actually people out there who think I'm evil."

Roseberry thinks he is adjusting well. But he added: "I really feel sad for a lot of them . . . . The main problem of many of them is they still want to go back. They haven't set their goal in a different direction."

Although most say they would go back to work as controllers tomorrow if they had the chance and a few still think they will be rehired because the system will collapse or the FAA will admit its error, most are back in the work force or trying to land new jobs.

Officials from PATCO, stripped of a union but not of a voice, say two-thirds of the former controllers have full-time jobs, for the most part in the private sector, and more than 200 are working overseas as controllers or controller trainers in such countries as Australia, New Guinea, and Saudi Arabia.

Nonetheless, most who have found new careers have taken considerable pay cuts.

Wes Bedrick, who made $45,000 as a controller at Leesburg, is now running Floor Fashions, Inc., in Leesburg, selling floor coverings and unfinished furniture. He worked briefly for Stakem pumping gas, went through $11,000 of his retirement money, then opened the business this year. He says it is going well, but it may be years before he earns as much as he did as a controller.

Like virtually all of the controllers interviewed, Bedrick acknowledges that he has adjusted his life style to fit his more modest income. "When you're making $45,000, there's a lot of freedom," he said. "Christmas used to cost us three or four thousand dollars. No more. We'll have to pick a college [for the children] that I can afford--which I am not pleased with.

"Giving up luxuries for me and my wife doesn't bother me at all. But giving up luxuries for the children--that does hurt a little," Bedrick said.

Bedrick smiled ruefully. "I went on strike for a shorter work week and earlier retirement," he said. "Right now it doesn't look like I'm going to get either."

Many of the controllers, though they know of the stories of families broken by the walkout, say one of the major effects of the strike has been to draw their families closer. Many say their wives have started to work.

"I'm spending more time with my family," said Fred W. Maclaine, 45. "This last year has been a delight. I've had more time to go see my kids play sports. It's a completely different life style and I enjoy it . . . I threw away that money and I found out that you don't need $40,000 to live on."

Also cushioning the controllers' fall from grace are the old PATCO locals. Local 204 still meets every other week at the American Legion post in Purcellville. Last weekend, about 150 former controllers, wives, and children gathered in Charles Town, W.Va., for an upbeat first anniversary picnic.

In many cases, however, the comforts of a supportive union and an understanding family have not completely offset the trauma of taking a $25,000 or $35,000 cut in income.

As in the Depression, when suddenly unemployed men who could no longer provide for their families came to doubt their self-worth, a number of controllers acknowledged that they have yet to overcome their anxieties over a skidding social status and income bracket.

"Some days it's like the whole world on your shoulders," said Don Otey, who is pumping gas at Stakem's Amoco and working as a part-time guard. "I pay a $650-a-month mortgage and I don't know where it's going to come from."

Otey says his retirement money, orginally $22,000, is fading at a rate of $1,000 a month. "Monetarily, it hurts not to be able to live my old life style," he said. "You feel a great deal personally and emotionally about that.

"I come from a poor family. And there I was making more than $40,000 a year. I figured I was on top of the world. All of a sudden you feel like you've let your family down, let yourself down. You feel like you're not as important as you used to be or you want to be . . . What I'd like to be in five years is an air traffic controller," Otey said.

He added that he would probably sell his house and furniture soon and send his wife and child back to live with his in-laws in West Virginia.

Another controller, Tony Varda, said: I've been an air traffic controller since I was 19. One half my life has been controlling planes. I have nothing to fall back on. I learned it right out of high school in the Navy and I thought I was in the trade I intended to do for the rest of my life."

Varda, 39, who made $46,000 as a controller, is selling both his cars, and may be forced to sell his house soon too. He says his monthly house payment is $790 and his and his wife's monthly income is $1,000. He has already gone through $20,000 in retirement money.

"My 17-year-old wants to go to college, but he's not talking about it," Varda said.

Unsurprisingly, not one controller interviewed said he would consider voting for Ronald Reagan in 1984, PATCO's endorsement of him in 1980 notwithstanding.

How can you vote for a man who put you out of your job?" said Varda.