Academic journal article Human Factors

Attention Distribution and Decision Making in Tactical Air Combat

Academic journal article Human Factors

Attention Distribution and Decision Making in Tactical Air Combat

Article excerpt


More than a decade ago, Flathers, Giffen, and Rockwell (1982) discussed the paucity of data available on pilot decision making. "Though pilot judgment has long been recognized as an important factor in the safety of flight, research in the area has largely been limited to observations made from outside the cockpit" (p. 959). Much of the existing research, furthermore, has involved retrospective analyses of the decision making of pilots involved in accidents or incidents and most frequently has focused on civil or commercial pilots.

The shortage is even greater for research on decision making related to military aviation. Despite a concerted thrust to provide military pilots with decision making aids through programs like the U.S. Air Force's Pilot's Associate (for a review, see Hammer and Small, 1995), information on how pilots of tactical aircraft actually process their environment and make decisions has remained largely anecdotal and reliant on recall.

The realm of the tactical fighter embodies many characteristics that make effective decision making challenging for even the best pilots. Houck, Whitaker, and Kendall (1993) provided an excellent overview of the tasks and difficulties involved in tactical aircraft operations. "The inherent nature of the BVR combat environment places enormous demands on the pilot's cognitive resources because of task saturation, time compression and incomplete or unconfirmed information" (p. 9). The incredible speed and maneuvering capabilities of high-performance aircraft lead to the need for very rapid decision times. In addition, hostile aircraft may have equally rapid flight paths and capabilities, compounding the problem. The consequences of error under these conditions are very high - frequently lethal.

The inherent complexity of the environment can also impose a major burden. In addition to the flight tasks to which most pilots must attend, the fighter pilot must work to employ the aircraft tactically against an opponent or opponents in an effort to accomplish prescribed mission goals. Frequently they lack direct, complete, or even accurate information about these opponents and often must operate in a beyond visual range (BVR) mode. Using on-board sensors and avionics systems, the pilot must actively work to obtain remote information, integrate that information, and form appropriate tactics and actions. This has been likened to "looking at the world through a soda straw," even though current graphically based color tactical situation displays (TSD) provide a far more direct spatial analog of the tactical environment than do traditional b-scope radar displays.

Even with the handicap of constrained information about the environment, there is a tremendous problem with information overload. Piecemeal addition of systems and lack of integration of information are often cited as major contributing factors. In a combat environment there may also be a high density of aircraft operating in a limited arena, leading to serious concerns about overload.

An additional challenge lies in a lack of predictability in the environment (even with detailed intelligence data). Carefully formulated premission plans must often be scrapped or revised in flight because of rapid changes in the situation. Generally the problems that pilots encounter are largely unstructured, and a wide range of actions are possible.

Like many experts, pilots often find it difficult to verbalize rules that can fully explain the breadth and depth of decision knowledge they have acquired experientially over time. In this environment pilots may rely more on the processing of dynamic spatial relationships and pattern matching than on fixed rules. Furthermore, understanding tactical aviation decision making is complicated because there is little agreement on what constitutes a "right" decision, even among the highly experienced. Although pilots can often point out poor decision making, there appears to be considerable room for diversity in what they do. …

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