120,000 Pilots Still Not Armed in the Cockpit

Karen Di Piazza (!)
Centennial Journal
March 2004

On July 2002, the U.S. House passed the Arming Pilots Against Terrorism Act by a vote of 310 to 113. It became law on Nov. 22, 2002, as part of the Homeland Security Act of 2002. The Transportation Security Administration is responsible to train, deputize and arm pilots who volunteer for the program as federal law enforcement officers in their Federal Flight Deck Officers program.

Congress amended the law because of increased Al-Qaeda threats to commercial and general aviation. Cargo pilots are eligible for the FFDO program. Flight crews that work for TSA’s approved list of 105 passenger commercial carriers, private charter companies and cargo air carriers meeting their criteria can apply to the FFDO program.

However, the Airline Pilots Security Alliance and members of Congress say TSA is sabotaging the program.

"TSA has trained, deputized and armed less than one percent of the 120,000 airline pilots who were eligible to volunteer since training began last April," said Captain Dave Mackett, president of APSA. "Because pilots, Congress, the aviation community and the public are voicing their outrage over this to the media, TSA’s dirty little secret of deliberately sabotaging the FFDO program is out in the open.

"For months, pilots have received threatening emails from TSA for voicing complaints about weapon-carry protocols, redundant, medical-psychological and background checks that have made the FFDO program an abject failure."

Emails obtained state in part, "Recent public disclosure of SSI (security sensitive information) by FFDOs in the media to law enforcement gatherings and congressmen is most alarming and a serious breach of security…failure to properly protect SSI may lead to removal from the FFDO program and civil fines."

TSA’s website posts civil fines up to $10,000. Emails also threaten investigations with TSA internal affairs. When Airport Journals asked him about this, TSA communications director Mark Hatfield said it was a "misunderstanding."

"They were sent out, but we discovered it was an error. They were not authorized to be sent out," he said.

Mackett and Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), don't buy TSA’s story and said because TSA was feeling the sting from unrelenting media inquires, TSA sent a follow-up email with a different tone. The email in part read, "Additional review of prospective emails at a more senior level prior to their transmission will help alleviate this problem from taking place in the future …"

However, the email still emphasized SSI secrecy, which concerns House Aviation Subcommittee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.), who believes the message went further than simply threatening FFDOs to safeguard SSI from public disclosure. It’s the implication they're not supposed to talk to Congress. Mackett described TSA’s actions "bipolar."

When asked about allegations that less than one percent of eligible pilots have been deputized, Hatfield reluctantly said it was true.

"I can tell you that about 1,000 pilots have been deputized as FFDOs and are armed today," he said.

Hatfield said the program was "slow to start," and that class size has doubled, but didn't verify how many applicants were currently training.

"At the end of 2004, we should have about two or three thousand pilots who have completed the program," he said.

Mackett said that’s not acceptable and private firearm facilities could train all 120,000 pilots by the end of the year.

"TSA can only train a couple of thousand pilots by yearend, because most of them won't apply now," he said. "Before the law passed, we had tens of thousands of enthusiastic pilots who had wanted to apply to the FFDO program. However, once the law passed, they watched TSA try its best to make it a failure. They tried to change legislation and submitted a bill to Congress that would only arm 250 pilots, but Congress voted it down and told TSA to stop playing games."

Mackett said after that, TSA thought of a new way to discourage pilots from applying to the program.

"Instead of holstering your weapon, TSA imposed ludicrous and dangerous weapon-carry protocols," he said. "They came up with the 'lockbox' requirement; no other law enforcement agency in the country has such an unwieldy and flawed procedure.

"Pilots must box their weapon every time they go on or off duty, leave the cockpit, commute to and from work or when flying deadheads in the passenger cabin. Pilots must carry an extra bag at all times, which makes it easy to identify them as an FFDO. That increases the odds of theft of the weapon."

Mackett says that in many cases the pilot must carry the boxed weapon outside to and from the aircraft cargo compartment for transport.

"We estimate an average pilot must move the weapon back and forth from the lockbox 160 times each month, in contrast to holstering it, where you wouldn't move it," he explained.

Mackett also mentioned a recent occurrence where a cleaning crew smashed a snack cart into a United Airlines cockpit door and the hinges came off. He said any terrorist could do that.

"TSA is aware of this, yet they deliberately leave the flight crew defenseless against protecting the lives of airline passengers," he said. "It’s unreasonable to think we'd have a chance; the weapon should be holstered and in the control of the FFDO, especially when the cockpit door is opened with permission.

"If a flight attendant needs to come in, or one of the pilots needs to go out to use the lavatory, the weapon under TSA’s protocol must be removed from its holster and boxed. TSA knows that’s exactly when a terrorist will attack!"

Mackett said he wonders if they d attention to what happened on 9/11.

"Like it or not, airline pilots are on the front lines of terrorism in this country; you don't send a soldier to the front lines without a weapon," he said. "The Smithsonian National Zoological Park’s police can carry guns on airliners some 2,000 miles from the zoo; state insurance investigators, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and 130 federal agencies transport their guns concealed on body—on duty or not—in or out of their jurisdictions. Try getting TSA to explain why that makes sense, but pilots who are responsible for the lives of literally millions of people are treated with outright hostility."

When asked about this, Hatfield responded that he and TSA believe they have developed the right polices, and that they had consulted with senior law enforcement personnel in developing polices that were specifically designed for FFDOs. However, he didn't verify whom TSA consulted with on carry protocols.

Hatfield appeared on MSNBC’s "The Abrams' Report" and faced off against First Officer Rob Sproc, APSA’s vice president and former Air Force special agent, who flew sophisticated weaponry aircraft and transported nuclear weapons. Hatfield accused Sproc of "living in a fantasy world where hero pilots would be stopping armed robberies in 7-Elevens or saving women from street thugs," if they holstered weapons like all other federal law enforcement officers do in the U.S.

Hatfield still stands by his statement.

"I'm describing the fantasy that’s in Mr. Sproc’s world," Hatfield said. "He sees these federal law enforcement officers, which FFDOs are, as having an area of jurisdiction that’s essentially boundless. The legislation that created the program very specifically lists their area of jurisdiction as the cockpit area of the aircraft."

Hatfield responds to APSA’s concern of inaccessibility of the weapon in dangerous situations.

"Dangerous to who? How? You mean inability to get to it?" he said. "That’s the crux of the problem. Why do you need to get to it, if you're not in your jurisdiction? It’s really simple."

Sproc described Hatfield’s remarks as unpardonable.

"Pilots who died on 9/11 are heroes," he said. "Had they been properly trained and armed with their weapons holstered, equipped to defend themselves against those terrorists in the cockpit, thousands of innocent Americans wouldn't be dead today."

Mackett said that in 36 states, civilians have concealed weapon permits.

"TSA should make the obvious deduction that thousands of pilots are already armed," he said.

New legislation

APSA testified to the House Aviation Subcommittee on the status of the FFDO program in October. Over 40,000 pilots initially signed up for training, but 90 percent of those pilots have since declined to participate.

"It’s been somewhere between Watergate and the Pelican Brief, dealing with TSA," said Mackett.

Members of Congress are angry over these facts. Rep. Wilson, who coauthored a new bill, is introducing the "Cockpit Security Technical Corrections and Improvements Act of 2004," which will eliminate most of the discretion on the part of TSA over whether a pilot could participate in FFDO training. Rep. Mica is behind this bill, as well as 50 Congress cosponsors; they plan to enforce major alterations to the FFDO program.

Some in Congress say TSA is having tantrums.

"We're talking about professionals here, but it’s just been roadblock after roadblock at TSA," said Wilson. "It’s a liberal, knee-jerk reaction to guns."

Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), who plans to introduce a similar bill to the Senate, believes legislation he and Wilson created will force the FFDO program to be implemented as Congress intended. Bunning said despite the "urgency" of this initiative to enhance our homeland defense, it’s disappointing that TSA has only armed a fraction of pilots.

"This will ensure that all pilots who've volunteered for this program can be trained and armed as soon as possible in order to defend the cockpit from terrorist thugs," he said.

The bill upholds the Federal Gun Control Act. Pilots who already have current Federal Aviation Administration-approved passenger or cargo pilot’s certificates won't be barred from receiving or possessing a weapon, which will make them automatically qualified. The bill eliminates redundant medical and psychological testing, and redundant background checks. FAA-approved pilot certificates are evidence that pilots already meet all mental and physical requirements, and existing employment by airliners is evidence they've undergone criminal background checks.

APSA is particularly in favor of specific provisions that would deputize and arm thousands of pilots immediately—pilots who are active or reserve members of the U.S. Armed Forces, or who are active or former federal, state or local law enforcement officers would immediately become deputized as an FFDO. Under this provision, pilots will be required to complete TSA’s firearms training within 120 days. However, those that supply proof of completing the firearms training course mandated by their military branch or law enforcement agency would be eligible to be armed immediately.

Wilson said that 70 percent, or 84,000 pilots, would immediately qualify as they have military, local law or federal backgrounds. The bill would give FFDOs equal authority as air marshals; they'll be able to holster their concealed firearm.

Wilson said FFDOs would also have authorization for "acting reasonably to prevent an act of terrorism when outside the cockpit of an aircraft." Currently, TSA restricts pilots from being able to protect themselves and the aircraft from a hostage situation; pilots stepping outside the cockpit aren't allowed to take their weapons with them to the lavatory.

Wilson said he’s going to ask Secretary Tom Ridge of the Department of Homeland Security, who oversees TSA, to implement these provisions of the bill by regulation—until Congress can pass the bill.

"I want to take every reasonable and common-sense step that we can to protect the American public," he said.

He added that people who have a practical, common-sense understanding of this issue can only come to one conclusion: "Arming pilots enhances the safety of an airplane and the passengers."

Psychological games

Captain Bob Lambert, who holds a federal firearm license and currently serves in the National Guard Reserves and Armed Forces Reserves, said even fulltime FLEOs, including air marshals, aren't subjected to TSA’s "Draconian" psychiatric and background screening requirements.

"TSA’s policy requires pilots to complete a three-hour written psychiatric test, then a lengthy psychiatric interview—prior to being accepted for training," he said.

Lambert, APSA’s former president, says the existing background checks required to operate an aircraft incorporate thorough criminal, immigration and domestic violence screens. TSA spokesman Nico Melendez defended their psychological-background testing methods saying it was the "most fair kind of system" they could put in place to qualify as many pilots as possible.

Captain Tracy Price, an advisor to APSA, said TSA has it backwards.

"They're disqualifying as many pilots as possible," he said.

Price said that in addition to TSA’s psychiatric screening, medical and physical ability evaluations with FAA-doctors are performed every six months for captains, and annually for first officers.

Disqualified pilots

Sproc, who flew C-141s while armed with a pistol, was disqualified by TSA.

He produced the American Airliner flight 63-shoe bomber and Taser videos that politicians nicknamed "Taser Kill," after Congress voted down using stun guns because they were proven ineffective against terrorists.

"The Air Force considered me psychologically sound to be directly responsible for nuclear weapons, flying no less multimillion-dollar fighters—armed to the hilt," he said. "The airline I work for also considers me worthy to fly their multimillion-dollar aircraft and to be directly responsible for their passengers' lives, but yet a TSA psychologist has determined I'm unreliable to carry a weapon in my own airliner!"

M. Rickey, a charter pilot who actively flies armed for the U.S. Armed Forces Reserves, and has a concealed weapons permit, said it wasn't that long ago he was flying armed with a pistol, flying over the Middle East in his F-16 fighter, but like Sproc, TSA’s physiatrist disqualified him.

"One of the questions TSA asks FFDOs on their 'secret' application is, 'Have you ever wanted to become a fighter pilot?'" he said. "You have a choice of answering yes or no. There isn't a section that asks if you've had any experience in this area, or any section that asks you if you've had weapons training. So of course, I answered yes, because I was a fighter pilot.

"I had an interview with TSA’s shrink and when she asked me, 'Do you think you could pull the trigger and kill someone if you had to,' I thought she was joking. She wasn't. If I didn't think I could pull the trigger and kill someone if I had to, I wouldn't have applied to the FFDO program in the first place. After that, I received a letter from TSA that simply said I was disqualified."

First Officer Dean Roberts, a former special agent for the DEA, U.S. Customs Service and federal firearms instructor, became "fed up" with TSA bureaucracy after he was dropped from the FFDO program—one hour before graduation.

"Of course, TSA didn't provide any explanation as to why I was suddenly dropped," he said. "It’s amazing to think you can spend 23 years in the federal government, obtain top-secret security clearances, fly dangerous missions while armed, graduate from the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (Glynco, Ga.), as well as the FBI Academy (Quantico, Va.), but TSA decides to drop me one hour before graduating.

"I believe when I told TSA that their carry protocol lockbox idea was dangerous and should not be considered, they decided I would cause problems and dropped me, thinking they'd get away with it and that no one would find out. Well, now Congress knows about it!"

Wilson said these types of evaluations made by TSA are insulting.

"These stories, and thousands more like them, hopefully won't continue under new legislation," said Mackett.

Privatize training

Language in the bill stipulates that TSA is required to follow the mandate that firearms training be conducted "in places throughout the U.S. so as to be convenient to pilots from all regions."

"TSA moved its Glynco, Georgia training center to Artesia, New Mexico, which is the only training center TSA currently allows FFDOs to attend," says Mackett. "I don't argue the fact that TSA is incapable of training tens of thousands of pilots, but under new legislation they won't have to worry about that."

Under new legislation, FFDOs would be able to attend private firearm facilities.

Front Sight Firearms Training Institute in Nevada is one of those facilities and is accessible to reach by most commercial or charter airline companies.

"We can train pilots to a higher standard than TSA has been able to," said Front Sight CEO Dr. Ignatius Piazza. "We can train for 1,200 dollars a person—a far cry from the $800,000 spent thus far to train a handful of FFDOs by TSA. We can train over 500 students per day now, and maintain a ratio of one instructor for every five students on the firing line—the highest standard in the industry. In the near future, we'll be able to train up to 1,000 students per day, compared to TSA turning out 40 students per week.

"We've had numerous pilots who've already attended our training, as pre-training before they go to New Mexico. Here a pilot learns to stop a would-be terrorist by delivering a single, perfectly placed handgun round to the brain. That’s a scenario that a pilot is likely to face; the distance may be short, but the stress and chaos associated with such an event are off the charts. They learn physical skills and the mindset necessary to win these ugly engagements."

Front Sight and other facilities use Simunition from a Canadian company, which produces a variety of ammunition types. In this case, it’s an FX cartridge.

"We don't use amateur 'paint ball' guns," Piazza explains. "The FX cartridge is fired from a real weapon. The only modification to the weapon is a replacement barrel that fires a plastic capsule filled with colored paste made from detergent."

Recently, members of Congress and pilots attended a public hearing on this issue in Arizona, which demonstrated training using an aircraft cockpit hull in which a real life scenario was set up. A terrorist had gotten through the cockpit door as a crewmember was opening it.

Southwest pilot Terry Sapio played the part of the first officer, while the captain flew the plane. Sapio’s weapon was holstered in the demonstration, instead of TSA’s lockbox requirement. Roberts, who attended the hearing, and who’s very experienced with this type of training, expressed his approval.

"The pilot was able to shoot and kill the terrorist immediately and demonstrated how precise his aim was," he said. "I highly recommend this training."

"TSA was invited to attend the hearing, but declined," Graves explained. "They claimed they did not want to come to a private facility."

Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) posed questions to pilots after hearing several of them voice complaints about how they've been treated by TSA. Mica and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, also talked with pilots about their complaints with TSA.

Owen "Buz" Mills, said TSA has been "hamstringing" its efforts to train pilots for the FFDO program and preventing private operations to provide the training.

Graves said because TSA faces such a large backlog of pilots to undergo the training, he wants TSA to change its procedures, but says they'll have to do it legislatively.

"We're losing a lot of money to attend training; we lose a week’s pay from our jobs, and have to pay for transportation, food and lodging to attend TSA’s remote facility," explained Mackett.

TSA claims that out-of-pocket expenses for pilots amount to about $200. Mackett said it’s costing them more than $2,500, based on an average week’s pay.

Mackett said he expects airline companies to balk over new legislation that would require them to give pilots time off with pay to complete firearms training, and to provide space-available seating on their flights at no cost to FFDO candidates.