When Congress created the Federal Flight Deck Officer program in November 2002, Ann Quigley faced a challenge.

The act directed the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA)--where Quigley is director of standards, testing and certification--to train and arm volunteer airline pilots to act as a last line of defense against possible terrorism in airline cockpits, or flight decks. It also charged TSA with setting up the initial procedures for the program within three months. To meet that charge, Quigley and TSA Deputy Assistant Administrator Elizabeth Kolmstetter, PhD, called on a multidisciplinary team that included many psychologists. The group developed the testing and interviewing processes used to screen pilot volunteers and helped develop aspects of their training program.

"The two basic challenges we had," Quigley says, "were defining the content of the selection process and then determining a way to implement it that would provide convenience and speed to pilots all over the country."

She notes that dozens of psychologists have helped the team meet those challenges: Industrial and organizational (I/O) psychologists developed the tests used to screen pilot applicants, clinical psychologists developed an interview process for them and both groups continue to use those tests and interview processes. Also, yet another group of I/O psychologists have developed parts of the pilots' weeklong training program.

Psychological screening

The first step for the TSA program was to develop sound screening. Flight deck officers are deputized as federal law enforcement officers; however, they differ from traditional officers in that their jurisdiction goes no further than the airplane flight deck, says Quigley. Because they do not receive the extensive training and post-training supervision given in a typical law enforcement agency, she says, the psychological screening process is particularly critical.

For this job, Kolmstetter and Quigley tapped psychologist Joyce Hogan, PhD, vice president of Hogan Assessment Systems, a company that develops personality tests for employee selection. Hogan and her staff developed an initial online test battery for flight deck officer applicants. The pilots access the application on the Web, then sign up to go to a proctored location to take the online tests.

"We did a series of job analyses to find out what characteristics would enhance or detract from people's performance in this job," Hogan says. Because "federal flight deck officer" was a newly created position, there were no previous experiences to analyze--so Hogan and her colleagues looked at similar positions like federal air marshals and law enforcement officers.

The test battery they developed measures a variety of characteristics, including four key problem areas: emotional instability, failure to comply with rules, overly aggressive behavior and inability to use deadly force. After a pilot completes the initial tests, he or she is interviewed by one of 37 psychologists around the country. The psychologists are recommended to TSA by local law enforcement agencies or by other psychologists.

"The key is that they all have experience making important decisions based on objective data," says Jim Fico, PhD, the lead psychologist for the project. Fico, who conducts interviews himself and trains other psychologists to do so, has a background in clinical psychology and had 18 years of experience in employee selection before he began working with TSA. He's helped organizations select employees as varied as salespeople, managers, police officers and other law enforcement officials.

Fico says he appreciates that the process is person-to-person but also high-tech. All of an applicant's information, including test results and interview reports, are kept on a secure Web site so that psychologists and TSA officials can always access them.

"I can supervise a psychologist by being on the phone with them, and both of us can access the test results at the same time," Fico explains. "I can look at the interview report as they write it and help them."

Once the applicant has been interviewed, TSA officials review that person's test results and the psychologist's recommendation and make a final decision.

Quigley emphasizes that the screening process is not meant to deter pilots from volunteering, but only to identify the small number who might be unfit for the job because of issues that could affect anyone, including problems with anger, violence or alcohol. In fact, she says, the vast majority of pilots are accepted. Nevertheless, the selection process remains controversial. A bill introduced into Congress this April by Sens. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), would, if passed, eliminate the psychological screening requirements of the program in an effort to speed up the approval process.

Training officers

Meanwhile, psychologists will continue assisting with the screening as long as it exists. And they also continue to contribute to another aspect of the program: training.

All new pilot trainees attend a weeklong training program, during which they must master a psychologist-developed computer simulation that presents various emergency situations that could occur in a flight deck. In the simulation, the pilot sits in the first officer or pilot's seat while a film plays on a screen in the background. The film mimics what the pilot would see in an emergency situation, and he or she must react appropriately.

To develop the simulation, TSA psychologist Alana Cober, PhD, worked with Deborah Gebhardt, PhD, of Human Performance Systems, a company that includes I/O psychologists and focuses on biomechanics and job performance tests.

In November 2003, Congress extended the flight deck program to include cargo plane pilots, as well as nonpilot flight crew members such as flight engineers and navigators, so the team is now developing training simulations for those personnel as well.

For many of the psychologists involved in the program, the work is both personally and professionally satisfying, says Fico.

"There are a lot of psychologists who, in this program, are paid less than they're ordinarily paid," he says. "But they don't care because they know that they're contributing to the security of the country. For a lot of our psychologists, that's a big deal."