Unarmed Pilots, Unsafe Skies — Thanks to TSA

Last fall, I received a mysterious telephone call from a commercial airline pilot asking to meet me for coffee at an airport hotel. Pilots are prohibited from discussing security issues with members of the press. Before 9/11 most pilots wouldn't have dreamed of such a thing. But in the years since, a growing number have felt the need to speak out. Many issues involving pilots have fallen into the hands of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), including the program that allows pilots to fly armed.

I met the pilot for coffee. Let's call him Captain X. A veteran pilot for a major air carrier, he is licensed to fly DC9s, 727s, Airbus 320s, and 757s. Captain X has logged over 18,000 hours of accident- and incident-free flying time in twenty-one years of service. Presently, he flies thousands of people back and forth across the Pacific Ocean each week.

Captain X faces a conundrum. As a volunteer for the Federal Flight Deck Officer's (FFDO) program -- pilots fly armed for free -- the TSA gave him a psyche test and failed him. In other words, according to the TSA, Captain X is psychologically unfit to carry a gun. "At first I thought there was something wrong with me," Captain X told me over coffee. "Now I think there is something wrong with the way the TSA runs the program."

What struck me as equally bizarre about Captain X's predicament is that in addition to being an airline captain, he's a firearms instructor in his home state. He's been handling and using guns since he was old enough to hunt. And in order to keep his skills current, he maintains rigorous training with a personal firearms coach who is the number one competitive pistol shooter in the state. Captain X owns guns, he trains people to shoot guns, and his state licenses him to carry a gun. But the TSA says he can't carry a weapon in a lock box in the cockpit of the aircraft he's flying on any given day because he's psychologically unfit to carry that gun.

For over a year, Captain X kept this information private. He found the TSA's results to be conflicting, confusing, and upsetting. There is no official recourse or review for a pilot who's failed a TSA psyche test. The pilot can't even find out why he failed; the agency considers the results of its psychological testing to be classified. I put the word out among my sources to find out what was happening with other pilots regarding this psyche test. Over the next few months, as various pilots reported back to me, I learned that Captain X was far from alone.

Consider pilot Dean Roberts, a former federal agent. For ten years, Roberts flew as an armed agent/pilot for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Roberts failed to pass the TSA's test. Then there's pilot Robert Sproc, a former U.S. Air Force captain who held a "Top Secret/Special Compartmented Information clearance." Sproc was also failed by the TSA.

"Given the vast numbers of pilots found unfit to be FFDOs, [there is] strong anecdotal evidence suggesting a deep, institutional opposition to the FFDO program within the TSA," says Captain David Mackett, president of the 23,000-member Airline Pilots Security Alliance (APSA). Mackett cited an example of a "nuclear-cleared" military pilot (i.e., someone who flies planes with nukes on board) whom the TSA deemed "unfit to fly armed."

The pilot's psyche test is called the Hogan Personality Test and is administered by an Oklahoma-based company called Hogan Assessment Systems. From public records, I learned that the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) first contract with Hogan was in July 2002. Their five-year contract was worth $5,162,761, or a little over a million dollars a year. In August 2006, Hogan signed a new, four-year contract specifically modified for the TSA. And then, sometime in 2007 -- according to the public records -- the TSA cancelled the Hogan Assessment Systems contract.

I reached Dr. Robert Hogan, president and co-founder of Hogan Assessment Systems, in his Tulsa office. Articulate, affable, and clearly dedicated to his work -- Hogan says he published the first paper using personality to predict police performance back in 1970 -- Hogan spent twenty minutes with me, anecdotally explaining why he thinks it's important to personality test people who will carry weapons in high-risk situations, including in cockpits and inside nuclear facilities.

"Here's one story," Dr. Hogan said, "There was this security guard in a nuclear power plant smoking weed. He came out of the bathroom just as something had gone wrong. The supervisor yelled 'cut the valve!' so the guard grabbed a pair of [pipe] cutters and literally cut the valve. That's why we have personality tests."

I asked Dr. Hogan to speak about subjecting pilots -- who are routinely drug-tested, by the way -- to the Hogan Test. "There is a distinction between technical talent and emotional maturity. You can fly a plane and be crazy -- or at least be a complete hot-head -- which is what we find all the time," Hogan said.

Captain Tracy Price, vice president of the Passenger/Cargo Security Group (PCSG) disagrees. Captain Price lobbies on Capitol Hill on behalf of armed pilots and is an expert on the FFDO program and the Armed Pilots Against Terrorism Act of 2002. "Airline pilots are an incredibly carefully vetted group of professionals," Price told me. "For decades, we've had psyche testing as a requirement of employment. The FAA requires us to visit a physician every six months. Our view is that it is entirely illogical to tell a pilot he is not stable enough to carry a weapon in the form of a gun when at the same time, he has access to the weapon we are all most in fear of after 9/11 -- a plane loaded with thousands of pounds of jet fuel."

In my interview with Dr. Hogan, I asked him to respond to his critics, including me, who might see his logic as flawed. "We have our critics and our detractors," Dr. Hogan said.

I asked Dr. Hogan if he knew why the TSA cancelled his contract (TSA refused to be interviewed for this story). Hogan said, "They liked what we did. We had all kinds of data saying the quality of airport security was on the rise, and then they just said 'go away.'"

I asked Dr. Hogan if he had any idea who would be administering the new psyche test to FFDO applicants. What Hogan said next surprised me: "We still have the [TSA's] FFDO and air marshal contract, but it's small because the numbers of new hires in those programs are significantly lower now."

If Hogan Assessments still had the TSA's FFDO and air marshals contract, then what million-dollar-a-year contract did Hogan lose? I asked.

Dr. Hogan explained that the largest portion of his original TSA contract was to psyche test TSA screeners, also called TSOs. "The TSA shut down the TSO psychological testing program," Hogan explained.

So, who will be screening the screeners? I asked. Hogan told me, "TSA is doing that in-house."

What this means is that there will be no more outside psyche tests for the TSA employees who are searching your bags for weapons and bombs. And yet these are the same TSA employees who, CNN reported just last week, are being fast-tracked to become air marshals -- to carry guns on planes. In the absence of logic, Captain X's point is well taken. Perhaps there is something wrong with the way in which the TSA administers its programs.

As one air marshal told CNN, "TSA screeners [who] have no college, no law enforcement, no military background," are being fast-tracked to carry guns on planes. TSA acknowledges that 36 screeners recently became air marshals. Meanwhile, pilots are being turned down.

In this evidence, Captain David Mackett sees a disturbing trend: "Ultimately, there is ample evidence suggesting the TSA is abusing the psychological screening process to unjustly dismiss FFDO candidates." The TSA bills the American taxpayer approximately $350,000 per air marshal, per year. Armed pilots are volunteers and fly armed for free.

Captain Mackett cited an example from the written part of the psyche test -- since changed -- that asked: "Would you like to be a fighter pilot?" Considering that many commercial pilots are and have been fighter pilots it's natural that many would answer that question with a "Yes." According to Mackett, the TSA concluded that these pilots "had overly aggressive personalities and disqualified them from the program."

In the absence of logic, Captain X may feel some relief. He's not the only pilot who has been black-marked by TSA's illogical, secretive, and draconian FFDO psyche testing rules. But this absence of logic should unnerve the rest of us.

Annie Jacobsen writes about aviation security and homeland security for a variety of newspapers, magazines and blogs. She is the author of the book, Terror in The Skies, Why 9/11 Could Happen Again.