AoF: Target Fixation

Today’s Art of Flight topic is target fixation, primarily as it relates to diving attacks. Target fixation is when a pilot is so focused on trying to engage a target that they lose situational awareness and forget to fly the aircraft. This is one of the leading causes of controlled flight into terrain in Arma. At its core, target fixation is the mental process of saying “Almost got it... just a little more...” until you’ve passed into an unrecoverable flight regime.

Contributing Factors

For the purpose of this discussion, there are a few common contributing factors towards target fixation as an attack helicopter pilot.

  • The first is a steep dive, typically over 45 degrees pitched down. The steeper the dive, the more time-compressed all related aspects become.
  • Next is fixed-forward weaponry such as FFARs or miniguns, in which the direction of the nose of the aircraft determines where the munitions go.
  • After that we have a flight regime in which controls progressively become less responsive – in this case, a dive, where pedal response decreases as airspeed increases.
  • The last contributing factor is the pilot being in control of the munitions – where the workload of flying and gunning is combined, and an increased focus on gunnery aspects or aiming the aircraft can take mental resources away from safely flying the aircraft.

In addition to those primary factors, there are several things that can exacerbate the situation. Some examples include having an urgent need to attack the target or command pressure to do so immediately, being in an environment that produces a false horizon reference, not being well-aligned with the target before beginning the dive, and being positioned such that the dive’s pull-out recovery path is cluttered or involves rising terrain or other obstacles.

Fatal Fixation

The typical process for a fatal case of target fixation happens like this. A pilot sees a target that needs to be attacked, they roll into a dive, their alignment isn’t too solid, and they try to roll and pitch or use pedal to get the correct alignment. Increasing airspeed from the dive reduces tailrotor effectiveness, so the longer they try, the faster they’re going, and the less they’re able to finesse the alignment. They may be firing on the target at this point, or they may still be waiting. Whatever the case, somewhere in this process they pass through their last-chance recovery window and transition into an unrecoverable state. After that they either align, fire, and attempt to recover from the dive, or they have an ‘Oh shit!’ moment of realization and attempt a recovery.

Unfortunately they’re too late, and they fly catastrophically into the terrain.

Keep in mind that if the core issue is from a bad recovery path, everything else can happen within normal constraints and you can still fly into terrain on the pull-out of the dive due to having conducted it with an unsafe recovery path.

How do you prevent this? The first part is to know the capabilities of your aircraft. Know how it controls, how it dives, and what kind of altitude and distance is required to safely pull out of dives at different speeds. Some aircraft become very mushy on the controls at higher speeds or when doing high-G maneuvers - know this in advance, as it’s a surprise you don’t want to discover during an attack run.

Conducting a Dive

Let’s talk through the general process involved in conducting a diving attack.

You’ve found yourself in a situation where a diving attack seems to be the best answer.

First of all, take time to assess the situation in detail. There are several things you need to think about before you commit to a dive.

  • Altitude. Is your altitude sufficient to give you time to align once you’ve entered into the dive?
  • Alignment. Are you able to roll in on the target with good initial alignment, such that you’ll only need to slightly finesse it to get rounds on target? Are you far enough away from the target to give yourself sufficient alignment time?
  • Recovery. If you dive in, what does your recovery path look like – is it clear terrain at the same altitude, or does the terrain rise up past the target? Are there any potentially tall obstacles in the way?

If these factors are not in your favor, or seem marginal – fly yourself into a better position! If there’s rising terrain behind the target, can you fly in from a different angle to avoid that? If not, can you start from a higher altitude instead, and break out of the dive earlier than normal? Or fly in at a shallower angle instead of doing a steep dive?

Once you decide that you’re positioned appropriately and can conduct a proper diving attack, THINK on what your recovery condition will be, how long you’ll allow for aiming, and when you’ll recover and make another attempt. Know these things BEFORE you initiate the dive, and think about them CONSTANTLY during the dive. Actively thinking about your recovery conditions will help to keep you from becoming target fixated.

Once you know your break away conditions, conduct the dive. Align on the target as quickly as you can, and continually assess whether you have sufficient altitude to safely continue to align, or whether you need to recover for another attempt.

One of two things will happen now – either you’ll align before you hit your recovery condition, at which point you’d fire and then pull out, or you’ll hit your recovery condition before you align, at which point you’d pull out and try again.

The most important thing to remember is that you must continue to fly the aircraft throughout the dive. You can always make another run if the one you’re in doesn’t pan out. If it isn’t working out, admit it to yourself and recover from the dive in order to set up for another attempt. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that one more second will turn a bad situation into a good one – you’re much more likely to fly into the ground when you allow yourself to be lured into danger by that siren song.

So that’s target fixation as it applies to diving. It’s very easy to slip up and allow haste to lead to mistakes – be very vigilant when doing diving attacks, always remember to keep flying the aircraft, and don’t allow yourself to be lured into a bad situation. Remember that you can always come back for another pass if the first one doesn’t work out.

Aside from diving, remember to maintain your situational awareness during other periods of flight. Watch for other aircraft, rising terrain or obstacles, and always remember to verify where you’re flying at least every few seconds during orbits or other occasions where you’re looking away from the aircraft’s heading. Never let a target or other distraction occupy your attention for long stretches of uninterrupted time – a lot can go wrong when you’re not looking!