This is a true story about formation flying in pilot training for the USAF. But first, some background.
TARGET FIXATION – What Is It?
You may have heard the term “target fixation.” It is frequently applied these days to many situations, but it originated in the realm of fighter pilots, usually when they were using their machine guns in an attack on another aircraft or on a ground target.
Originally, it meant the pilot was so totally focused on his target (excuse me, ladies, but when the term originated, only men were fighter pilots) that he totally lost awareness of anything else going on, sometimes to the point that he would fly his aircraft right into the ground, or into a situation he couldn’t get out of, such as into a bridge or a tree or a box canyon or another aircraft.
Today, the term “target fixation” refers to any situation in which you focus so intently on one object that you lose awareness of everything else around you, either putting yourself in a highly dangerous situation, or being in dire jeopardy of doing so.
TARGET FIXATION In College
My first experience with target fixation came when I was a brand new freshman at college. I was in my dorm room, playing chess with a guy from another room. We were sitting on a pair of desk chairs, playing chess on a small desk between us. I was totally focused on the game.
I was vaguely aware of other things going on in the dorm, and of another guy from the dorm coming in the room to ask a question, but none of that registered. While I was in this focus-trance, another dorm mate noticed I was totally out of it. He got a few others, and they began taking things out of my room, just to see if I’d notice. And you know what? I never noticed until just about everything was out of my room (they just put it in the hallway), and one of the guys said “Excuse me” and tried to take the chair I was sitting on. It was only then I realized what they had done.
Needless to say, they had a huge laugh at my expense.
TARGET FIXATION in Formation Flying
In formation flying, the lead aircraft has responsibility for the entire flight, everything from landing gear up and down to navigation to formation configuration – all of it. The other aircraft in the flight, usually a total of two to four in a flight (including the lead) simply maintain their position on the lead aircraft and do what he does.
When the lead aircraft needs to do something he cannot command with hand signals or actions, he issues a command over the radio, and the wingmen answer with their position number in the flight, usually with a very short and crisp transmission.
For example, if air traffic control (ATC) tells them to change to a different radio frequency, you might hear something like this over the radio:
ATC: “Leopard 41 flight, contact approach control on 285.4”
Leopard Flight Lead: “Leopard 41 flight, roger. Two eight five point four. Four-one flight, go button six.”
Wingmen: “Twop.” “Threep.” “Fourp.” (The crispness of their responses frequently makes it sound like there is a “p” on the end of each number.)
TARGET FIXATION and Black Humor
Target fixation can become incredibly intense among wingmen in a formation of aircraft. The closer the aircraft fly, or the tighter the formation, the more intense has to be the focus. This focus can be so intense that it gave rise to a popular but horribly morbid joke among pilots, following the crash of the entire Air Force Thunderbirds team in 1982 in Nevada.
When talking about the crash, some dark wit would remark, “Boom! Twop. Threep. Fourp.”
Yeah. Ha ha. Right.
However, there was never any doubt in any experienced pilot’s mind what had happened. The lead aircraft simply made a mistake, and the other aircraft in the flight had such target fixation on the lead aircraft they followed him right into the ground.
All this narrative up to now has been the background. What follows is the story I wanted to tell in this post, but you really needed to have the background I’ve just given you to appreciate the story.
My Target Fixation Story
The year was 1970 and I was in the last phases of pilot training at Laredo AFB in Texas.
This particular day I was scheduled for a 2-ship formation ride with another student in my flight, and our respective IPs (instructor pilots). We were flying the Northrup T-38 Talon, a tandem-seat supersonic-capable trainer the USAF uses for advanced flight training.
A typical scenario in a ride like this is that we take off with one of the aircraft in the lead position, fly out to the training area (a designated block of airspace), and about halfway through the ride we switch positions and the other aircraft becomes lead.
On this ride, I was scheduled to take off in the lead position.
This day turned out to be one of those rare “golden days,” when everything went exactly right, when even small details went exactly like they were supposed to, both for me and my classmate.
Takeoff went exceedingly smoothly. “Burners – now.” (We synchronized lighting the afterburners.) Rotate. Liftoff. Gear up. Flaps up. We’re at climb speed, out of burners – now.
We got to the training area and did some maneuvers, a lazy eight, an aileron roll, a loop, and a few other things, all in close wingtip formation.
It all went exceedingly smoothly, with both aircraft performing flawlessly.
While it is a lot of work and focus to fly as a wingman, with total focus on the lead and making constant and infinite small adjustments in relative position and speed, it is also a very intense workload to fly as flight lead, because you have to fly much smoother than if you were alone.
For example, when you start a turn, you can’t just crank in the bank and pull G’s. If you do that, you’ll leave your wingman in your jetwash. Instead, you start the roll very slowly, and speed it up until you’re near the desired bank angle, then slowly decrease the rate of roll until you are stabilized at the proper angle of bank.
It takes longer to tell it than it does to do it, but it’s absolutely essential to do it properly if you want to maintain formation integrity.
It came time to switch flight leads, so I gave my classmate the signal to move farther away (to move from close formation to extended formation) by gently waggling my rudder, causing my aircraft to visibly yaw left and right but without affecting its path.
Once he was in extended wingtip formation, I gave him the signal to take lead, and he acknowledged.
At this point I became the wingman, and my total focus was on my flight lead, on maintaining my proper position in relation to his aircraft.
Again, things were going amazingly smoothly. Everything was just perfect.
In the background of my awareness, I vaguely knew that the IPs were talking to each other over their private channel (one the students cannot hear), and I was vaguely aware that my flight lead had requested that we be moved from a low training area to a high training area, and I was vaguely aware that we were climbing into the high area, and a few other things.
But all that was far in the back of my awareness.
I was totally focused on flight lead, on maintaining my position. And I was doing a great job.
But I had target fixation.
After about 20 minutes of maneuvers in the high training area, I was vaguely aware that we were descending, and knew that was right because we had to descend to go home, but I also was a bit puzzled because it seemed too early to go home.
Then I noticed something strange.
I noticed the controls of the aircraft were becoming hyper-sensitive. The minuscule inputs I had been making to the controls were now giving much larger results. When I would try to move the aircraft up a couple of inches, it would go twice as far as I expected it to.
I was worried something might be going wrong with the aircraft, so decided to ask about it.
Over the interphone (which is always live inside the aircraft), I said, “IP, the aircraft is starting to feel squirrely.”
He said, “Look at your mach meter.”
I did. It read 1.2. We were going 120% of the speed of sound. We were supersonic.
If you had looked head-on at our two aircraft, you would have seen less than one meter separating the two planes.
Faster than the speed of sound, less than a meter away from another aircraft.
Over the interphone, I replied to the IP, “Wow. Cool.”
I don’t remember much of the rest of the ride home after that, other than it was just as smooth and perfect as the rest of the ride.
Both my classmate and I got top marks for that ride, but I’ll never forget that feeling of realizing what I was doing when I looked at the mach meter.
Now I understand target fixation.