Reagan-era FAA chief dies at 86

December 15, 2011

J. Lynn Helms, who served as president and chief executive at Piper Aircraft in the 1970s and FAA administrator during the Reagan administration, died Dec. 10 at his home, according to reports. He was 86.

A former Navy and Marine test pilot, Helms took the top spot at the FAA in 1981 and was faced with an impending strike by air traffic controllers. He prepared the agency to continue operating ATC facilities in the event of a walkout; and when 11,000 controllers lost their jobs, towers and radar control facilities continued to operate with no serious accidents attributable to the strike, according to a New York Times obituary.

Helms’ experience at Piper gave him an awareness of general aviation issues that he carried into his time at the FAA. John Sheehan, secretary general of the International Council of Aircraft Owner and Pilot Associations (IAOPA), worked at AOPA during Helms’ tenure at the FAA. “He was a real gentleman, a hard charger,” Sheehan said. “He understood general aviation, and he helped us when he could.”

In a speech at AOPA's 1983 convention, Helms credited the association with helping with a speedy ATC recovery and recognized the association’s work on safety-related programs. “Indeed, AOPA and FAA have had a long history of cooperating on programs that benefit the general aviation community—especially thos programs the advance the cause of safety,” he said. In the address, he cited AOPA’s role in pilot education and other initiatives, including an AOPA petition that resulted in allowing pilots to wear contact lenses. He also expressed support, 20 years before the creation of the light sport category, for a new “basic” or “primary” aircraft category between ultralight and Part 23—“something that would make aviation affordable to a larger segment of the population,” he said.

Helms cut costs during his tenure at Piper and helped improve the company’s financial position, earning him a reputation as a savvy businessman. When he joined Piper as president in 1974, AOPA Pilot reported in 1981, the company posted earnings of $151 million; by the time he left in 1979, it said, earnings had grown to $400 million. At the FAA, Helms oversaw efforts to modernize the air traffic control system. He resigned from the post in 1984 after reports in The Wall Street Journal prompted Department of Transportation and Securities and Exchange Commission probes into his business affairs.