What does it mean to be a good wingman?
Fighter jets rarely fly by themselves. Most of the time — if not all of the time — they fly in a section (two aircraft) or sometimes a division (four aircraft). This is for multiple reasons but mainly because a fighter jet is not very effective on its own. A wingman can offer additional firepower and top cover on many different missions.
Safety is another reason. For example, when flying over large bodies of water for extended periods of time, fighter jets routinely fly in section. Having a minimum of two aircraft allows for a margin of safety when operating in remote locations. In case one of the aircraft has an emergency, the wingman can help out.
So this begs the question, what does it mean to be a good wingman?
1. Be a Good Follower
A wingman is there to back up the lead aircraft, not lead the section. This means a wingman cannot try and take over the flight, no matter how much he may want to. Wingmen are there to do as much as they can to help the lead aircraft with the mission. Notice that I used the word “help,” not “take over.”
2. Keep your Comm Chatter to a Minimum
“Join up and shut up” is how the saying goes. No one wants to hear a Chatty Cathy on the radio. Most of the time, the wingman should respond to the lead aircraft’s communication on the radio with the tactical callsign or just “Two!” If you feel the need to say more than that, check the fifth rule below to see if you should say more.
Every fighter pilot knows that poor communication is probably one of the biggest contributors to a poor hop. Communication is always debriefed after a flight and poor comm is always recognized in the tape debrief. Make sure you don’t add to it!
3. Don’t Cause More Problems
We had a wingman one time that would not stay in position for the entire flight. The lead pilot was constantly reminding the wingman and always looking for him. The lead even had to shackle the flight in order to get the section pointed in the right direction. The unnecessary tactical administrative problems took away from the execution of the actual mission. The wingman became a burden and affected the overall performance of the section due to his lack of professionalism.
4. Execute the Mission
Exactly as it sounds. Brief the flight, fly the brief. Don’t make things up on your own. If you didn’t talk about it in the brief then it is probably not a good idea to try it out now.
Most importantly, make sure you are a team player and help the section along. For example, stay within visual sight of the lead; shoot and/or bomb the appropriate target (sounds obvious, right?); and provide top cover for the lead.
A successful wingman allows the lead aircraft to think about the larger tactical picture. This ultimately leads to success in the mission because the lead is not focused on the small things.
5. Be a Safety Observer
This one is probably the most important for obvious reasons. Safety is paramount and a good wingman can do some real good keeping the lead out of trouble. A safety advisor is there not only for emergencies but for tactical purposes as well, particularly in the visual arena.
If the wingman sees a bandit first, he or she must use directive over descriptive comm to maneuver the flight advantageously towards the threat.
For example, consider the following communication:
Viper 2: “Break right, bandit six o’clock!”
Notice that the wingman said “what” to do before describing where the threat was. It’s better to get the flight moving first and then paint the picture.
While being a wingman may not be the most glorious of roles, the position is critical for the overall mission’s success. Take pride in your ability to do the “blue-collar work” well. You’ll see a great outcome and you’ll learn a lot.
This article was written by Joe Ruzicka and originally published in 2019.